Is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Pessimism “Neoliberal”?

On Tuesday, December 19, Ta-Nehisi Coates quit twitter. A couple days earlier, Harvard Divinity Professor Cornell West published a sharp take-down of Coates in the Guardian, “Ta-Nehisi Coates is the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle”. In typical trolling fashion, the piece was endorsed by Richard Spencer.

There is lots to say about the substance of the disagreement between Coates and West. In the view of New Yorker writer Jelani Cobbs, the accusation that Coates is neoliberal is both outrageous and malicious, part of a broad range of attacks on Coates by Black intellectuals who resent the attention and accolades accruing to a HBC dropout. But West builds his argument with facts that are well known, and not easily dismissed. West draws on Coates’ own words to point out that Coates has become the most prominent black voice among the White elite of American society. This is not simply a guilt-by-association, but a natural consequence of Coates’ neglecting Capitalist profiteering in favour of White Supremacy as the primary driver of American life (and thus the primary source of injustice). This Duboisian emphasis on the colour line crowds out, for Coates, the intersectional nature of oppression in America, and so he fails to build hetero-patriarchy systematically into his analysis, and does not explore the ways race, gender, and sexuality work together to create a regime of control, a social structure which reinforces existing power by unevenly distributing violence. But worst of all, for West, Coates falls into a kind of knowing pessimism; by rendering White Supremacy both decisive and immovable, Coates paints a portrait of America which is doomed by its history.

West does not present these arguments carefully or sympathetically, and as such their persuasiveness is uneven. On the failure to centre capitalism, we have one the central pivots around which the modern left has struggled. Is racism a tool of capitalist exploitation, or does it have a life all its own? But we also have echoes of the 2016 Democratic Primary, when Coates voiced criticism of Bernie Sanders for his failure to address race issues early in his campaign. West was and remains a prominent supporter of Bernie.

As is demonstrated in his sharp critiques of George Packer’s coverage of the Trump campaign, Coates is carefully attuned to the ways that a focus on economic injustice elides issues of race, in ways that reinforce racial injustice. West is right to think that his attention to this problem leads Coates to be suspicious of the broad coalition-of-the-exploited politics that has been the lifeblood of social democratic left. As he explains in We Were Eight Years in Power, this rhetoric misses the possibility that working-class whites will (correctly) identify their interests not with their fellow-worker but their fellow-whites. It misses the fact that White Supremacy created the first mass-Aristocracy, building a society in which even the most destitute White man could rest assured of his rare and unearned social privilege. This, Coates suggests, is the true meaning of “Whites Only,” and he takes Trumps victory as proof that it is this set of interests which motivates the majority of white Americans – as it ever was.

The fact of the Trump presidency, with its intense culture warfare and its nostalgic “Make America Great Again” makes it difficult to disagree with Coates on this. And yet is it equally difficult to disagree with the proposition that things are more complicated, that everything cannot be explained by a single variable. (This is the substance of Packer’s rebuttal to Coates). In this sense the strongest charge against Coates is his failure to centre the most vulnerable – to build intersectionality into his analysis in a systematic way.

But it seems to me that what really motivates these prominent straight men to critique Coates is not the failure of his intersectional analysis but the central question of hope. West’s core charge against Coates is that he paints a world in which White Supremacy cannot be overcome, and that this has a de-mobilizing rather than an empowering effect. He ignores “black fightback”. He does not rally to the cause; instead he wants to be a writer, a truth teller.

The exploration of what it means to be a writer, a black writer – and eventually, a famous black writer – has always been a central thread of Coates thought, one which he has courageously put on display. There are two structuring threads of We Were Eight Year in Power. One is his gradual disillusionment with Hope and Change and his growing awareness of White Supremacy, traceable from his celebration of Michelle Obama in “American Girl” through his fascination with the Civil War to “Fear of a Black President”.

The other is a story of a Coates, a writer making it big. In his notes from each year, Coates documents his financial situation. What began with a heart-warming agreement for his father to subsidize an independent blog becomes, by Obama’s second term, real financial stability. By 2015, Coates was talking to Neil Drummond about how his wealth had transformed their friendship for This American Life.

These two threads are related. They are connected by the central question which Coates has posed for the last few years: why do white people like my writing? The shift in Coates analysis is pegged, in part, to his growing sense of his own responsibility. In WWEYIP, he tries to explain his rise to prominence, by exploring the proposition that the Obama presidency “created a market” for a certain kind of voice. With the election of a Black President, White America suddenly felt compelled to pay attention, in a way it never had before, to Black art and writing and scholarship.

But he is also grappling with the ethical implications of this meteoric rise. Implicit in Coates self-examination and in West’s excoriation is the charge that, if White people like what you are writing, then you are doing something wrong. West makes it explicit; if they like you, it is because you are not challenging them.

This charge hinges on the claim that Coates provides no way out; that he describes White Supremacy in such a totalizing way that White wring their hands and share Atlantic articles on Facebook over four-dollar lattes in gentrifying neighbourhoods: “what can you do?”.

Such a claim is bizarre in at least one sense: Coates’ most important essay is a direct answer to this question. It gave us a way out. Reparations.

We might respond, with Bernie, that Reparations are never going to happen. That such a demand is politically unreasonable. Perhaps so. But should the most influential Black writer in America therefore pretend that justice requires anything less? Should Coates tell the Atlantic audience that a social democratic coalition is the answer to the Colour Line?

The point is not only that we should aim high – although we should. The point is that no version of justice worthy of the name requires anything less. When Ezra Klein asked him directly what he thought justice would involve, Coates replied, wealth equality. When the average household wealth of black families is equal to that of white families, we can begin the conversation about whether the legacy of Slavery has been overcome.

For a Black activist to evaluate themselves by this bar might well be demoralizing. Certainly, it would motivate a retreat from the shadow-boxing of partisan politics. And that’s probably for the worse. Getting a pro-BLM mayor elected is not going to solve the wealth gap. But it is nevertheless vitally important.

So it is essential that there be writers and intellectuals who speak to these activists. Who conjure coalitions. Who exhort us to live the change that we want to see, to build anti-racist, feminist, queer communities. To bring heaven to earth by living now in the society we want for the future.

And these conjured worlds must be supported by an analysis that is grounded in the reality of that struggle. In its pragmatics, on the one hand, and its intersectional utopianism, on the other. All of us, or none of us.

It is essential, in other words, that there be a Cornell West.

But shouldn’t there also be Ta-Nehisi Coates?

Is there a place for holding White folks to the fire? For articulating clearly and persistently the depth and horror of White Supremacy. For interpreting current events in light of this structuring insight. For holding every measure of progress to the standard of Justice, and finding it wanting.

I take this to be Coates’ own answer to the question that his fame has posed. This accounts for strident, at times polemical tone of “The First White President,” which caused so many on the left to turn on him. This is how a man of Coates’ convictions remains honest when he finds himself White America’s racial conscience.

The question that the West-Coates dispute poses, it seems to me, is whether we can accept, in this age of integrated and social media, such a division of labour? Can there be one argument for White Liberals, and another for activists?

But of course, the answer to this question will crucially hinge on the answer to another. What are White People going to do about it? When Coates presents his accounting of the deep and persisting horror of our own society, do we cry, what about the working class? Do we breathe a sigh of relief when we see that Cornell West agrees that the real problem is Goldman Sachs, and say, no way Congress will approve reparations anyway? Or do we allow ourselves to be honestly confronted by the depth of the challenge that White Supremacy poses to all of our consciences? And let that be our starting point.


ISIS’s Marketing Campaign

In response to yesterday’s post on violence, a friend sent me this excellent, challenging piece on the marketing savvy of ISIS. It does a great job of bringing out the perverse way that ISIS has been able to enter the West’s popular imagination. Marshall Sella cites one fact that I found especially remarkable: polls show that Americans were more aware of the beheading of James Foley than of any news event in the last five years – including, for example, Assad’s use of chemical weapons. No wonder we are going to war – the tail wags the dog.

The whole thing is worth reading, but here’s an especially resonant passage.

“ISIS, though, has reached marketing maturity. The militants’ media portfolio — its slickly designed magazine Dabiq, the grim John Cantlie Show, all of it — represents their message in full. On one side of it, there’s the recruiting effort, beseeching life’s losers in the East and the West to come and be welcomed, to be a part of something. On the other side, the message to those who will not join the cause is: We are going to destroy you, but first, utterly defile you. ISIS has now threatened not only to “See you in New York,” but also to fly its square banner over the White House.

Their icons, unlike the one-off images of Al Qaeda, have the ability to continue and expand, with an eye to distribution worldwide and one hundred percent of the back end. The creation of corrupt icons, the 2014 sort of icons, and the mass production of them — that’s fairly near the modern definition of branding. That’s the horror of it. (Well, the real horror is in, you know, all the killing.) Terrorists have co-opted methods of the comparatively innocent world of consumerism in order to pitch barbarism.”

Violence in a Complex World

Violence clouds our minds; it makes our vision murky. Our hearts race, our muscles flex, and we get ready to do something. Depending on how close we are to it, we are either fascinated or horrified. Often both. All of this is normal; it’s an important survival instinct, harnessed these days mostly to sell movies. But despite the extraordinarily nonviolent bubble that middle-class Westerners generally live in, violence remains at the core of our politics. At bottom, political debates are about the application, or non-application, of violence. And for reasons biological and social, we are generally terrible at thinking about these issues.

Three especially graphic examples of violence have been dominating the headlines over the last few months: ISIS beheading a journalist; a cop shooting a teenager; and the kidnap and murder of three Israelis. Each incidence has provoked an angry, knee-jerk response, which has in turn triggered a cycle of escalation. . And so from the potent seed of dramatic violence we get three even more violent, politically charged situations: Ferguson, Gaza, and Western intervention in Iraq and Syria.

What all of this means is that telling a story about these violent incidents has been a major preoccupation for writers, politicians, policymakers and activists. The appropriate response follows from accurately diagnosing the problem. Was Michael Brown a criminal, or yet another victim of a racist system? Is Israel defending itself, or acting recklessly outside the bounds of justice and international law? The fate of thousands turns on the dominant interpretation of some crucial act of murder.

We use incidents like this as ways in to much larger, pre-existing political debates. This makes sense: they are immediately, viscerally, relevant. They demand a response, and we’re prepared to spend a little bit of time considering what sort of response that should be. But they are also, for much the same reason, imprecise ciphers – Rorschach blots on which we can project our own meanings as we see fit. There is too much meaning in the digitally broadcasted execution of an American journalist by a group of self-styled jihadists. Take a minute to appreciate all the possible angles here; just the act of killing is already too much for my mind to handle. What does it mean to end a life? Is this a noble ending? How is it with James Foley’s soul?

This already fraught, emotionally charged event is then further situated within cascading layers of meaning. We come with readymade narratives. Michael Brown was a good kid killed by a broken system; he was a bad kid, killed by a public servant who has sworn to protect society from the sort of threat he represents. Zoom out a bit, and he was a kid—who cares if he was good or bad? The point is that he was black, and, in America today, that is enough to get you killed. Zoom out again, and Brown is yet another example of entrenched racist systems and the militarization of America’s police. Zoom out again, and the whole story is an example of the way the media fixates on race, when really what we should be focusing on is the tragedy of this particular incident, this unhappy story of a police officer who felt threatened, reacted badly and killed an innocent man.

I want to dwell on this last move for a minute, because it articulates an impulse that I think we all feel. At each point in the layering of meaning, there are those who will stop you and say, “This is where I get off,” or, “I can appreciate that there are nuances to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but when you start talking about Oriental thinking in medieval Christendom leading up to the crusades, I just don’t see the relevance. Real people are really dying. Let’s not get too abstract here.”

We live in a society that produces literally endless commentary-on-commentary. Things have a way of getting pretty abstract pretty quickly. And figuring out how to zoom in and zoom out is perhaps the biggest challenge in trying to think coherently about pressing political issues. Pull out too far, and you lose a sense of the actual people and events. Stay in too close, and you miss the broader implications.

There is a strain of the contemporary Left that has argued themselves into irrelevance by insisting that what is primary, what is really fundamental here, is discourse analysis. Figure out how narratives of black men have been constructed, and then we can start talking about Ferguson. Actually, we better start by unpacking the cultural baggage of our concept of “narrative”. That’s where the politics really takes place.

Now, I tend to think these people have a point, which we can see if we zoom in just a little bit. No one seriously maintains that Michael Brown’s blackness and the fact that he was shot are simply coincidence. Reasonable people acknowledge that, to some extent, there is a script for how a white police officer interacts with a young black man. There are certain roles that both parties more or less expect. Like the script that governs my interactions with professors or cashiers, this script is learned by observation and training, and although it’s not immutable, breaking out of it can be jarring. So when we say that Michael Brown’s death doesn’t stand on its own, but is an example of larger forces at work, there is obviously something to it.

But there is also something to the frustration with discourse analysis and meta-narratives. It’s dehumanizing. It makes people into epiphenomena; it makes a real death into a symptom of an unreal, intangible system. It manifestly fails to engage at the level of fear and anger and emotion that actually shape these events. It can be politically demobilizing, elitist and painfully insensitive.

On the other hand, calls to “get real” and respond to violence in a concrete, tangible way have their own set of problems. The Israeli government and the American law-and-order crowd both appeal to “real danger,” “in the moment” to sidestep questions about the broader forces that shape those moments and create that danger. At the end of the day, Israeli homes are being bombed; at the end of day, the American-backed, Israeli military is forcibly perpetuating a Christian-backed occupation of Muslim lands. Both of those points are equally true, as are the appeals to Islamophobia and anti-Semitism that we could make if we wanted to continue the conversation. My point is that “at the end of the day”—nothing. Getting real doesn’t get us far.

The discourses that we use to diagnosis the problems are also the structures that create them. Our peculiar predicament, in this age of infinite commentary and information overload, is that we have the capacity to be articulate about the structural features of our lives in ways that we never have before. Our social science can take us deep into issues that in previous generations would have been ascribed to forces of nature or gods (like poverty, gender, or cultural difference). But this very articulacy can actually have negative effects. It can be paralyzing and demobilizing, or falsely empowering. By driving our gaze relentlessly away from the specific, the concrete, the literally violent, our capacity to understand our society undermines our ability to engage with it. We live in a world where every action can be graphed by big data, but none of them matter much. Our longing for “authenticity” is an attempt to cut through this, but like “get real” appeals to violence, ‘authenticity’ creates as many questions as it answers.

The challenge is to come up with a politics and/or an ethics that, on the one hand, leverages our deep knowledge to respond to the real complexity of our world, while on the other hand remains faithful to the specific predicaments in which we actually find ourselves and can hope to do something about. We need virtues that scale up and down; that can shape individual behaviors but are informed by systematic analysis.

I’ll conclude by saying that the good news, it seems to me, is that many of the traditional virtues are up to this task, if they are properly interpreted. Courage, Moderation, Wisdom, these all sound good. That’s because the challenge of aligning individual action with social goods isn’t a new one, even if the particular challenges that come from an awareness of our participation in unjust structures is.  I’ll try to develop this thought further in another post – it’s on my mind a lot, as I’m working on a PhD grant proposal that argues that the Christian virtue of Humility is an especially relevant one to our present condition.


Have we taken friendship too far?

Imagine a time before friendship. Imagine being a human being in a world where friendship didn’t play a major role. I think that time probably existed. Not that there was no friendship at all, of course; the bond between Enkidu and Gilgamesh is at the heart of the oldest story we have from ancient Mesopotamia. That friendship was a rare and beautiful thing; it was the exception, whereas today, it’s just the water we swim in. Other sorts of relationships, especially familial and tribal relationships, have become much less important, and friendships have rushed in to fill the gap.

In the last hundred years or so sociologists have noted the emergence of two new “stages of life”. The “teenagers” and “young-adults” have emerged between childhood and (parental) adulthood. Peer relationships define both. And so it seems to me that modernity has not only invented two new “life-stages,” it’s also placed friendships much more centrally in our lives. Our technology reflects this. Social media tools are particularly well-suited to facilitating friendship; I often marvel at how easily I have remained in contact with high school or university friends, while my father grew apart from his friends as soon as he left the city.

That friendship has become so ubiquitous and so central to our lives is a pretty remarkable thing. For Aristotle and for Plato, friendship was the highest form of human relation. As Aristotle explained with typical eloquence, “without friends, no one would choose to live.” But highest does not mean most important. Just as Aristotle distinguished between “mere life” and the “good life,” so he distinguished friendship from those relationships, like parent-child, which are necessary to ensure our survival. These relationships are necessarily unequal, in Aristotle’s mind, because they always involve power imbalances, where stronger parents tend to the needs of more vulnerable children, or stronger masters guide the actions of weaker slave. Unlike these relationships of the workplace or the household (both of which are suggested by the Greek term oikos, where we get ‘economy’), friendship is characterized by genuine equality. And this equality frees friends to go beyond mere survival by together seeking the good life.

This two thousand year old vision of friendship, as equals jointly pursuing their highest vision of a good live, remains a powerful to this day. As economic progress freed first teenagers and then young adults from the labours of house-holding and reproduction, it’s no surprise that we started spending more and more time on our friends. Today, many of us have several hundred (!) “friends” on Facebook. Friend obviously means something different here than it did for Aristotle. But not that different, I think. Equals jointly pursuing the good life still describes the goal, if not the substance, of most of these relationships. Even romantic relationships have come to more and more closely resemble friendships; “[my partner] is my best friend,” says the bride or groom.

This transformation is no coincidence. The most remarkable things about the triumph of friendship is the way in which other relationships have been remade to be more like friendship. For Aristotle, friendship was rare; it was almost necessarily limited to male heads of households, since only they had the level of freedom required to pursue the finer things in life. In our modern world of economic abundance and leisure, by contrast, virtually every relationship is between independent, equal individuals. Or at least, we would like it to be.

Certainly, this is a major aspect of feminism. I think it’s fair to say feminists want marriage to be characterized by relations of friendship rather than dependency. Creating the conditions for that – by for example ensuring the economic independence and equality of women – has mobilized a great deal of feminist activism.

The modern world also insists on seeing economic relationships as equal partnerships between independent individuals. This stands in sharp contrast with the economic relations between a lord and his peasant, for instance. The capitalist, contractual understanding of economic relations insists that both sides are equal – as signatories to a contract. It leaves no room for the understood inequality that underpin feudal notions of reciprocity.

Our insistence on equality in all things means that we have a really hard time making sense of obvious inequalities when they confront us. The discomfort most of us feel around panhandlers, for example, reflects our sense that our deeply rooted notions of equality are somehow not being upheld. So too does the awkwardness some of us feel when talking to children, as does the lasting stigma around people with mental or physical handicaps.

Our inarticulacy in the face of these everyday situations is significant, I think. I don’t think its unreasonable to say that, at this point in our historical development, relationships between equals are so much the ideological norm that we have a hard time imagining other sorts of relationships. Or more specifically, we have a hard time imagining what a virtuous relationship between non-equals would look like.

The pre-modern world had ways of talking about these things. You could talk about duty, about fulfilling your station, about knowing your place. There was an idea of complementarity, that justice lies not in respecting the other’s autonomy but in somehow fitting together. There was a recognition that people depended on one another – that the noble depended on the farmer to eat, and the farmer depended on the monk to ensure his salvation. But dependency is precisely what friendships are not about. And so in the modern era, duty and complementarity are buzzwords for reactionary social movements. But they reflect a genuinely different, and not necessarily useless, way of thinking about how human beings relate to other human beings.

Ancient or especially mediaeval justifications of complementary, co-dependent relationships typically regard the individual as a part of some greater whole. Like limbs on a body or gears in a machine, individuals do their part to ensure some outcome which exceeds their individual contribution. This way of talking denies the adequacy of any individual’s project; it says that your life and only be made sense of within a broader context. No, working the land all day is not the most humanly satisfying endeavor, a lord might explain to his peasant, but it is nevertheless essential to the functioning of this community. It is in recognized dependence, rather than in independence, that these lives and these roles find their meaning. The community is not a joint project, freely pursued by consenting individuals, any more than the body is a joint project freely pursued by the toes and the liver. The whole comes first; and the individuals who compose it are not themselves whole, and cannot be understood as such.

Although it is certainly foreign to our way of thinking and living, we can learn something from this way of thinking about things. As a society, we are not very good at figuring out how to relate to those who are manifestly not our equals. On a small scale, this manifests in our discomfort and moral uncertainty around panhandlers. On a grand scale, we talk about things like the “white savior complex”. The feminist and queer communities talk about things like “problematic allies” – who are problematic precisely because they occupy a very different social position that those with whom they are “allying”. When assumptions of equality and autonomy break down, we have a really hard time figuring out what the heck we are supposed to do.

As a bearer of a great deal of privilege myself, this is a problem of which I am acutely aware. My positioning in the social hierarchy means that my relationships are distorted in certain ways. In meetings and in classrooms, people listen to me without interrupting – even if I interrupt them. I am given the benefit of the doubt by cops or authority figures – even if I don’t deserve it. Crossing those gaps to have authentic relationships with the people on the other side is a genuine problem – one that is not solved by declaring that all men are created equal (nor would it be resolved by declaring that all persons are created equal). But from Aristotle, and the tradition of thinking that followed him, I take two ideas that I find useful.

The first is that we are participating in a shared project, and that project is very big and very important even though all individual contributions are very small and unimportant. Virtue cannot be found in tipping the scales, in doing that one great thing which was yours. Virtue lies in making a contribution; playing a part.

The second is the notion of friendship as something rare and precious, requiring many conditions to be met. This requires acknowledging that many of our relationships are not friendships, Facebook status notwithstanding. But this does not make us less open; just the opposite. It forces us to acknowledge that real openness, the kind of mutual respect and shared living that characterizes true friendship, takes real work. It encourages us to cultivate these relationships, confident (if we trust Aristotle) that this is the essence of the good life.

We especially need to be reminded that friendship takes work when we are attempting to be with those who are different from us. Solidarity is a beautiful and politically indispensable thing, but it’s got nothing on friendship. Solidarity requires the acknowledgement of an abstract equality; friendship requires living that equality.

I’m not saying that Aristotle is the answer. By talking about the ideal of equality in terms of universal friendship, I’m trying to resist a common conservative narrative. That narrative sees the problems with a modern, liberal idea of “universal equality,” which it views as shallow, inadequate, and unrealistic, and so harkens back to older ideals. But friendship is not an empty or abstract notion the way “universal equality” can be, and the triumph of friendship is probably the single best thing of the modern world. Without it, who would choose to live (here, now)? It is the realization, not the undoing, of the ideals of Aristotle, of Plato, of Christ. Our economics have changed, and we are not bound by the physical and biological necessities that Aristotle used to justify the master-slave, husband-wife relations. Of course these should be transformed into relationship of friendship.

But recognizing the moral force behind this transformation does not eliminate its weaknesses.

When Aristotle names friendship as the highest form of human relation, he makes it obvious that this is something to be striven for, not something to be assumed. He retains a moral vocabulary for characterizing good relations with our unequals. One does not have to endorse these ethics to see the utility of that, especially as we become increasingly aware of the deep structural inequalities, which shape us all. Not all relationships are friendships, and there’s a real danger that this triumph has been too complete, and that we’ve lost the ability to really think about other kinds of relationships, to subject them to moral scrutiny in a coherent way.


The Transcendent (Religious?) Aspects of Feminist Discourse

I’ve been reluctant to write directly about feminism, because I am not expert, it is politically charged and subject to fierce internet debate, and I don’t think that what the world needs right now is another white man offering his two cents about feminism. However, I’ve decided to go ahead anyway. I don’t think I can proceed in my characterization of the modern-world-as-I-see it without directly commenting on the most present ideological force in my immediate social world: feminism and social justice discourse. (I lump the two together because I observe deep overlaps between them; I’m really talking about those writers and thinkers who are concerned with “structural injustice,” a great many of whom call themselves feminists).

I don’t want to comment on feminism simply, but rather to bring it in to dialogue with some of the themes I have been developing in this blog: the extension of the category of religion, and the abstraction of modern society. In this post, I will focus on the former. I want to make explicit some thoughts that lie in the background of a couple of previous posts (especially this one), by focusing in particular on the issue of rape culture. The question I am interested I pursuing is, what is the significance of talking about human and sexual relationships in terms of something like “rape culture”?

I understand rape culture to be, quite simply, the culture or the aspects of a culture that facilitate or normalize sexual violence. At its most obvious, this include things like a journalistic culture that sympathizes with perpetrators of sexual assault and silences victims, and a popular culture that treats women as sexual objects. Most of what activists are interested in changing has to do with these sorts of, to my mind uncontroversial and urgent, problems. Where they encounter opposition, it is often for the reasons I outline in a previous post: outright bigotry, a lack of empathy, or an ideological opposition/blindness to the idea of structural inequality in general.
But there is also a much deeper and more interesting side of discussions of rape culture, which so far belongs especially to internal discussions within the feminist and social justice community. This is where people try to come to terms with the potentially radical implications that follow from seriously scrutinizing the connections between sex, gender, violence, and power. I will give just a couple examples, which were chosen not because they are excellent but because they are indicative, and came readily to mind. This article is by a man who is interested in overcoming his own mental habit of sexualizing women he meets. This article is interested in exploring the lines of consent and non consent within established romantic and sexual relationships.

These articles highlight the profound and not necessarily obvious ways that rape culture reaches in to and shapes even our thoughts and intimate relations. Our private fantasies display the residue, or perhaps the seed, of more explicit forms of objectification. Our relationships of trust and consent nevertheless involve power imbalances, deafness, privilege, and indeed violence. In final analysis, these articles confront us with some fundamental tensions of the human condition: how can we base our relationships on equality, when power, inequality, and subtle violence is endemic and perhaps even inescapable? How can I respond to the other, even (especially) my intimate others, in a way that is just?

In one sense, these articles belong to the very same tradition that is so vocal about not sympathizing with “good boys who just made a mistake”. But they belong to a different side of that tradition, which is more inward and more idealistic. They represent attempts, not to reform societal structures to make them more just, but to transform individual lives to make them more righteous. They have understood that the fact of structural injustice means that your very self, in profound ways, has been formed by an unjust system. To be just, then, requires a transformation of self.

To overcome rape culture, one must begin by adopting an attitude of constant vigilance towards ones own thoughts and behaviour. One must attend to the gender, sexual, and power dynamics of one’s relationships, and have the courage to hold them up to the light and ask, is this right? One must be humble in acknowledging the experiences of others often differ widely from one’s own, and one must be prepared to respond to new information with openness, kindness, and humility. All of this constitutes little more than a beginning, a few first steps on the long march towards true justice.

What I am trying to bring out, in this description, is the sense of justice as a transcendent ideal which lies behind these feminist projects. By transcendent, I mean that it is high, extremely demanding, perhaps even unattainable, and applicable to virtually all aspects of our lives. By ideal, I mean that it is never less worth pursuing, and that is can serve as a useful guide in our everyday lives. As a friend helpfully put it using a different metaphor, gender justice is an asymptotic limit, to be approached but never reached.

So feminism is not only project of social reform. It is also a dynamic quest for a transcendent ideal. We can see the dynamism of that search in the many debates and discussions that take place online and in the academy. Endowed with a transcendent ideal, a rich and dynamic community, and a radical project of social reform, I don’t think it is a stretch to characterize this movement as a religion. What is key for me in applying this label is that a religion provides a framework in which an individual can make sense their life. It seems to me unquestionable that contemporary feminism/social justice-ism does this. If I, for example, were to devote my life simply to eliminating the effects of rape culture on my own psyche, and sharing that journey with others, this would be a full life. As rich, and indeed closely comparable to, a life devoted to living according to the Gospel of Love, or one which sought to live without desire and so achieve Nirvana.

There are also, of course, differences between these forms of feminism and traditional “religions.” But these differences are remarkably hard to pin down. One might point to the fact the feminism has its roots in social reform; but in important senses so do Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, etc. The distinction between political, social, and religious reform was not clear at the time the Hebrew bible was compiled, for example, and a central argument of this essay is that it is not so clear in our time either. Another possible difference is that there does not exist an explicitly transcendent mode of existence in feminism. But we need to be pretty careful about how we define terms like transcendent before we start applying them to Buddhism or Confucianism or even Christianity. Caricatures won’t do. My own theological and philosophical training has generally convinced me that metaphysical doctrines have their roots in ethical and social concerns, or at least cannot be disentangled from them. In the end, I’m not actually sure if or how I would distinguish between these two different sorts of “comprehensive doctrines”. So I will leave you, my reader, with that question.


Living in a broken world: How Original Sin helps me make sense of structural injustice

In my previous post, I tried to draw attention to some of the difficulties that come from recognizing ourselves to be part of a massive and deeply broken system. I suggested that one common, knee-jerk response to this condition is to simply deny that our system is broken, or that we as individuals are in any way implicated in that fact. This response appears all over the internet in the form of people denying the existence of patriarchy, ignoring historical and contemporary colonialism, or getting defensive when presented with evidence for structural racism. Rather than being simply a shirking of responsibility, I argued, these reactions reflect  an honest response based on a particular understanding of ethics. In short, an ethical view that emphasizes the individual’s personal responsibility for their own actions does not leave a lot of room to accept and make sense of moral condemnation on the basis of large, systematic forces of oppression.

In this post, I want to explore what I see as a possible response to this ethical dilemma that I think underpins a lot of conservative-liberal disagreement. That is the notion of Original Sin.

Original Sin gets a phenomenally bad rap these days. At one level, this is a reflection of the prominence of sexual ethics in much discussion and interpretation of theological issues, which results in the idea of original-sin-as-our-depraved-sexual-nature getting pushed front and center. I’ll just say right now that I don’t find that interpretation of original sin especially interesting or compelling, biblically or theologically – although I don’t deny that the Bible and Christian theology generally tends to take a dim view of human sexuality.

I think Original Sin is about something much broader. It’s about the spiritual and ethical flaws of human beings, not their sexual appetites. It’s about precisely this fact, which social critics and activists keeps hammering home: that we live in a broken world, and we are implicated in its brokenness.

The simple fact of the matter is that I benefit from the suffering of others. By living the way that I do, I cause other people harm. I do not intend to harm them; I intend only to live my life. Nevertheless, environmental, social, and economic ills are perpetuated. Sweatshops are kept open, forests destroyed, and stereotypes are upheld. This is one of the senses in which I interpret Romans 7:15 “…What I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do”.

It seems to me that this mismatch between intention and action confronts virtually every person living in North America who has taken the time to think about it – although it is perhaps more acutely true for well-educated white guys like myself. And an ethics rooted in individual choice and responsibility just doesn’t go that far in resolving the dilemma. Indeed, the opposite seems very often to be true. Our individualized, personalized ethics offer two major ways to respond to this sort of global injustice. The first is a retreat – away from politics and into the realm of the personal. I strive to be good to my family, good to my friends, good to my neighbour. This does nothing to ameliorate the harm that we do by perpetuating entrenched systems of oppression; instead, it allows us to feel righteous in our perpetuation of broad social harm.

The second response is to take up personal responsibility for political problems. This is clearly admirable, but it is also emotionally devastating and hubristic. I did not make the world this way; I don’t know how to fix it. Forgetting that has led, historically, to a good deal of revolutionary violence, missionary conversions, and structural adjustment programs. But it has never yet solved the fundamental problems.

My point is not that either of these responses are bad; my most important role models all embody one or both of these responses, and that’s what makes me admire them. To be a good friend and neighbour, to be an activist for a just cause, these are the highest of human callings. My point is that, because they lay such a deep emphasis on the individual’s personal responsibility and accountability, they fail to provide an adequate lens through which to view the problem of living in a structurally unjust world. They are inadequate because the notion of responsibility they embody is inadequate; I am not ‘responsible’ for patriarchy. It’s not my fault that others suffer to make my t-shirts and grow my grapefruits. But at the same time, I am implicated in that fact. By focusing on individual responsibility, both of these perspectives deprive us of a vocabulary that can make sense of these ethically counterintuitive situation.

So that’s where I think Original Sin comes in. The story of the Garden of Eden tells us that human beings have been fucking things up since literally forever; that this is a built-in, permanent condition of human existence. We are inheritors of unworthiness. Our own failings, as we let people down, say nasty things and think nasty thoughts, are unsurprising reflections of the fact that to be human is to err. We inherited injustice and by our natures we perpetuate it. That is a basic fact of our fallen condition.

As any responsible reading of the Bible will show, this does not excuse us from struggling against injustice. But it does make nonsense of the notion of fixing the world, by merely human means. It gives us a useful way to respond to the fact of failure, the inevitability of failure.

Original Sin, like the idea of structural injustice itself, presents us with a sense of guilt for actions beyond our control. More than the sexual gloss, I think it’s this that explains its deep unpopularity in modern times. Modern progressivism since the Enlightenment has emphasized the individual’s ability to shape – and improve – his or her world. But an honest encounter with the realities of structural injustice shows us the limits of this kind of thinking.

In the context of Christian theology, our basic fallenness is only the starting point, of course. The essential counterpart to the notion of Sin in the notion of Grace; although we are not worthy of redemption, we have nevertheless been redeemed. This allows Christians to avoid falling into hopelessness, or simply give up trying because “the evil I do not want to do – this I keep doing”.

But I don’t want to get in to that here, because if I’m being perfectly honest I don’t really know what to think about Grace or how it relates to my life (if you’ve got thoughts on that, let me know). The point I want to make in this blog post is that understanding our moral predicament as the predicament of a fundamentally fallen being is a useful corrective to two unhelpful tendencies in contemporary political discourse. The tendency to limit ethical responsibility to the deliberate acts of an individual, on the one hand, and the tendency to condemn on the basis of macrocosmic tendencies and seek to improve the whole ‘system’ on the other.


Why do people have such a hard time understanding structural injustice?

One of the most important ideological divisions in western societies today is over the question of structural injustice, whether it exists and what it is responsible for. This incident from a couple months ago – where three students filed a complaint against a teacher for teaching about structural racism – is a clear example. The teacher and the student both couched their claim in ethical terms, and both found plenty of supporters online. It seems to me that the debate over this incident is just an especially clear example of what is in fact a widely recurring disagreement – a disagreement so profoundly felt that most of the time people just yell past one another, because their opponents position seems so deeply wrong. At the core of the disagreement is the relationship between society and the individual. Does your world view have room for the implications of something like “structural injustice” or not? Answer that question, and I will tell you what you think about affirmative action, the prison-industrial complex, the glass ceiling, and rape culture.

By “structural” injustice, I mean in particular those forms of injustice which are not the product of an individual or a group of people mistreating someone else. I mean instead those forms of injustice that are a by-product of “the way things are,” the unfortunate blind spots in the system that just happen to work out for some people and not for others. There is a whole sub-industry of scholars – feminists and critical race scholars and sociologists and queer scholars among others – who spend their time showing, brilliantly and compellingly, the way in which the blind spots in our economic, social and political order just so happen to map on to historical prejudices and the imbalances of power among those who made and make the rules. Good examples of structural injustice include the disproportionate incarceration of young black men and the continued dominance of men in high-powered positions of business, politics, etc. If you believe in structural injustice, you think that these unfortunate situations are a product of racism and sexism – not explicitly (it’s not that individual police officers are racist – although of course that’s part of it) – but because a complicated and fraught history of racist/sexist laws, compounding economic disparities, and social expectations and norms have worked together to bring it about. If you don’t believe in structural injustice, you probably think that something else explains these situations.

I think there are basically two reasons why people are skeptical about structural injustice. The first is that, if you live a life of even moderate privilege, and can be hard to see and to believe the injustices of the system. I, for example, have lived a life in which institutions – universities, government bureaucracies, police, public schools – have generally acted well, and in my best interests. As a result, I tend to think of these institutions more or less positively, and when someone starts denouncing them as deeply patriarchal, my instinct is to get defensive. In order to accept this critique, I need to embrace and legitimize someone else’s opinion about a reality that I already know fairly well from my own perspective. I need to accept that their perception is as valid as my own. That’s called empathy. And it’s hard. Most of us do well to really empathize with the closest people in our lives, our friends and family. And even then, when you get into an argument, it’s easy to forget that they have a different but equally legitimate perspective on how things are.

This ethical dimension is one of the reasons that debates on the topic can become so fiery  so quickly. If you think about the issue in ethical terms, it can seem as though people who are skeptical about structural injustice (especially privileged people) are quite simply lacking in empathy; their political position betrays an insensitivity to someone else’s suffering. I think that’s real, and that’s part of it, but only a part. I’m wary of arguments which trace differences in political position to a moral failing.  It ignores the fact that an ideology or political belief is not a substitute for actually caring about people; but it also glosses over the deeper philosophical question that is at stake.

The second reason that structural injustice can be a hard notion for people to swallow is that it requires thinking about one’s own relationship to the world in a way that is both counter-intuitive and contrary to some of the most powerful myths of modern society. We usually see ourselves as agents. Living an ethical life, for many people, depends on a profound sense of personal responsibility, which in turn relies on the ability to distinguish between those actions for which you are responsible and those which are out of your control. This sense of personal responsibility goes hand-in-hand with modern notions of equality -if everyone is equal, that means precisely that everyone is responsible for their own actions. We no longer live in a world killing someone because your lord ordered you to is ethically justifiable.

The idea of structural injustice that I laid out above troubles this. What it brings to light is that, in addition to being agents, responsible for our own actions, we are also implicit participants in a whole variety of systems which thoroughly exceed our control. I’ve written before about how alienating this experience can be. But what this incident brings out is that it’s also an ethically confusing experience. The students reacted against this professor on a moral register – their argument was not that she was wrong or boring, but rather that she was racist. What they mean by that is that they felt as though they were not being treated as unique, free agents. Instead, they were being held accountable for things over which they had no control – things which were only related to them at all because they happened to share a skin color with people who used to lynch other people for being black. For these students, racism means judging someone based on how they look rather than “who they are”. And by that definition, calling white student to account for the actions of some different white people is racist.

Now, the problem with this position is that pretending that you can make sense of “who you are” in the absence of the history and the social context that made you who you are is nonsense. But it’s nonsense that lots of people buy into in one form or another – and for good ethical and political reasons. Accepting personal responsibility is at the very heart of what many westerners, including myself, understand to be mature, right behaviour. Shifting blame is a symptom of ethical immaturity or cowardice. And so when faced with an argument that seems to undermine this logic, by emphasizing the importance of structural forces in shaping our actions and the meaning of our actions, people are very understandably made uncomfortable.

What is required here is an expanded and nuanced understanding of personal responsibility; a way of thinking about agency that both avoids blaming everything on circumstance and allows for the ways that our agency really is shaped by forces beyond our control.

I’m going to conclude here, having outlined what I see as a fundamental problem in our contemporary political discourse. Both liberals and conservatives tend to have an individualistic and a-historical understanding of the individual, and this tends to make arguments about very real structural problems unproductive and rhetorically overheated. It is in other words, not only a product of racism and defensiveness, but also a product of a built-in incoherence in the dominant political ideology, that makes it so hard for people to understand structural racism and other forms of structural injustice.