lizmckinnell

Philosophy, and things that are not philosophy. That probably covers it.

Category: politics

Victim blaming and ‘asking for it’

A short section of a thing I’m working on at the moment. The overall thing will be about the general notion of victim blaming and the instances it is used to cover. There will be lots of J.L. Austin in it.

The phrase ‘asking for it’, used in so many cases of rape and sexual assault, masks a distinction between two very different notions, and often slides between its two different senses. The distinction is that between a provocation and a request. On the provocation model, a woman’s clothes, behaviour or location are seen as a red rag to a bull – the perpetrator is presented as having been ‘provoked’ to commit the assault. This is similar to the ‘Right, now you’re asking for it!’ of a barroom brawl. On the request model, the perpetrator is claimed to have responded in a reasonable or understandable way to a masked or non-verbal request for sexual contact.

‘Provocation’ itself is typically used in a range of ways: I might be wearing a provocative top, or say provocative things about a renowned philosopher (perhaps both at the same time). These cases are very different: the latter might be a cause for condemnation, while the former is in most cases fairly benign. Perhaps sometimes I might even provoke thought. ‘Provocation’ also has legal and medical uses. The legal use is parasitic on the ordinary understanding of provoking anger: under many jurisdictions, someone charged with committing a violent crime may be excused or exculpated if they have been ‘provoked’ in a way that has led them to lose control. In the medical sense, ‘provocation’ is any technique used in a clinical trial to elicit a particular reflex or bodily response. The legal, medical and anger cases suggest a loss of control or responsibility for one’s own actions, an absence of the capacity for rational thought, and the eliciting of a response that is not fully voluntary. This seems to be an element of the sexual sense too, although one that we are probably better off without.

The sense in which ‘asking for it’ is construed as a request is in strong contrast to this. It is used when a victim is understood to be consenting by behaving in particular ways, for example by going to the perpetrator’s room, or by dancing with him. If we understand it in this way, then the perpetrator is understood as someone who is capable of attending to another person’s intentions, and acting on the basis of what he takes those intentions to be. The behaviour is taken either to express the victim’s desire for sexual contact, or to be reasonably interpretable as doing so.

It seems unlikely that someone could be capable of behaving in this manner, while at the same time being so ‘provoked’ in the former sense that they are unresponsive to the normal reasons for action. On the first understanding of ‘asking for it’, the perpetrator is (partially) excused on the basis that he is not in control of his actions, while in the latter, he is (partially) excused because he has made a reasonable interpretation of the situation before him and acted accordingly. The cases also differ with respect to the perpetrator’s supposed attitude to the victim. In the first case he is portrayed as (excusably) unresponsive to her preferences and wellbeing, while in the second he is portrayed as responsive to them.

In both senses, this phrase is a case of blaming the victim, but for different reasons. In the first sense, the perpetrator is presented as the proximate cause of the attack, but his moral responsibility is taken to be overridden. In such cases, his actions are taken to be caused rather than chosen, and the victim is then taken to be the most immediately responsible party with free agency. This is usually only taken to be ‘partial’ blame, where the perpetrator’s actions are not so beyond his control that he is entirely exculpated, and the blame is ‘distributed’ between perpetrator and victim. The second case is also an instance of victim blaming, but the victim is blamed either (a) for claiming that a rape or sexual assault has occurred when she was ‘actually’ consenting; or (b) for misleading by ‘sending out the wrong signals’. In both (a) and (b) the victim is presented as dishonest or misleading. Again, this kind of victim blaming may be an element of a (purported) partial excuse, but notice that those who blame the victim in this way can present the behaviour of the perpetrator as entirely reasonable.

In reality though, these very different meanings tend to be equivocated, despite their near-incompatibility.

Outward-looking feminism

I should note at the very start that anyone who feels the need to say something like ‘Exactly! This is the problem with feminism’, or to agree with me about the ‘pc nonsense’ is not welcome. You are, in a trivial sense, entitled to your opinion (trivial because all it means is that I should not be allowed to stop you thinking or saying it) but you are not my ally, and if you think that you are in sympathy with this piece you have misunderstood it.

What I want is an outward looking feminism. Not outward looking in the sense of feminine self-sacrifice or self-abnegation, but instead directed to a clearer, less fearful, vision of each other and the world that we cohabit.

As women, we are trained from a very early age to see ourselves as things to be looked at. Many of us find it hard to get away from obsessing about our appearance, our weight, and whether our behaviour is regarded as properly feminine or sexy. This is the triumph of whatever you want to call our target – be it men, patriarchy, systematic oppression – that’s up to you. We are not just policed by legal and pay inequalities, by threats of violence and explicit exclusion from roles and positions, we are, perhaps more than anything, policed by ourselves as a result of how we are raised, trained and shamed. This means that we have ourselves constantly in view – am I up to the mark? Am I projecting the right image?

Under such conditions, it is hard to look outwards. It is hard to enjoy a sunset without thinking about a certain image of oneself enjoying a sunset. It is hard to think about intellectual or political ideas without thinking about the ways in which we are seen to be doing so. Getting away from the panopticon – the all-seeing male gaze that we impose on ourselves – and just looking at what is in front of us, is extremely difficult. Solitude is a project to be achieved, not the simple state of being away from a particular other, because we tend to bring the eyes of others along with us.

Social media doesn’t help with this of course. There is unprecedented scope for us to compare ourselves with others day or night, and to have unprecedented opportunities to project an image of ourselves to others even when we are alone. This may be equalising in a sense, imposing on men (especially young men) many things that had previously been more feminine burdens. But do we want equal self-surveillance and policing for all?

This is a common theme in feminism. Sandra Bartky writes about it very effectively in her book Femininity and Domination (I nicked the image of the panopticon from Bentham via Foucault via her). But what I think we need to see is how this self-obsession has come to infect many areas of feminist discourse themselves.

The most obvious point here is about image. Now of course things like weight, body hair and so on are feminist issues, and they should be discussed in feminist spaces. But a feminism that makes us obsess about our own hairy pits or our own body fat is not a feminism that I can totally get behind. We need to lose that self-consciousness from time to time, and move beyond the particular images that we are projecting to the thoughts and feelings that lie behind them.

But that isn’t enough, because (perhaps another thing ramped up by social media) those thoughts and feelings can become a kind of image branding as well. It is easy to move away from thinking about something important or interesting and start thinking about how we must be seen to be thinking about something important or interesting.

‘The personal is political’ is a great feminist slogan. It reminds us that issues often trivialised or marginalised because they affect us in the private or domestic spheres, in our everyday lives rather than on the global stage, can be matters of serious political concern. But this should not lead us to retreat into an obsessive kind of self-examination, more concerned with how we see ourselves and the way that we are affected by things than we are with the world around us. And I fear that this happens a great deal – we are constantly monitoring ourselves and our feelings for the pernicious effects of patriarchy on our wellbeing.

One thing that I have in mind here is the current feminist concern with safety, which often manifests itself in a heightened sense of danger. There is a need, undoubtedly, for certain safer spaces, for trigger warnings, for all kinds of assurances and provisions to make us more secure. But the proliferation of these and similar things has often had the opposite effect by leading to an exaggerated sense of the danger in situations. Discussions in online forums will rapidly descend into people feeling threatened or hurt by other people’s comments, in a way that moves the discussion away from the topic at hand – we stop looking outward and start looking inward. Meanwhile, the focus on safety vs. danger can make us hesitant in other areas of our lives – afraid to walk the streets alone or speak out in public – we lose sight of our destination, and worry instead about what might happen to us. We need to find a way of acknowledging the real dangers and fears associated with an oppressive system, while finding the strength resilience and good humour to look the world in the face.

Of course, this has always been a peril of developing any kind of political consciousness concerned with domination and oppression – we become aware of threats and slights that might previously have passed us by. But a pernicious inward-looking tendency, itself the product of an oppressive system, can turn an outward-looking positive political movement into an incubator of neurosis. It is an irony that it is the internalised eye of the other that can make us disappear inside ourselves. To overcome this solipsism we need to learn to be properly alone.

I don’t have any easy solutions to this. It is something that we need to arrive at in discussion with each other and through living, campaigning and reflecting. But in order to do so, we need to practice looking – properly looking – rather than looking at ourselves as looked-at. This seems to me the only way that we can be less fearful, less solipsistic and more empathetic.

What sort of feminist are you?

A while ago, I wrote a piece for the New Left Project about transphobia in some strands of feminism. I faced a number of (very politely) critical responses from people in feminist circles with whom I discussed the article over a few pints. It turned out that much of their concern was not so much with the substance of the article, but with the fact that the link to the article (presumably written by a sub-editor) took my remarks to be critical of ‘radical feminism’, which, in contemporary discourse, pretty much lands me in the ‘liberal feminist’ camp. This was the one concern I had with my dealings with the New Left Project, who, apart from this, had been amazingly helpful and good fun to work with. This led me, over the intervening months, to reflect a bit on the ways that we categorise feminism, and in particular, the use of the words ‘radical’ and ‘liberal’.

What might we take ‘radicalism’ to mean, in the context of feminism? First of all, I want to dismiss the poorly thought through uses of it as a catch-all pejorative term. It is a great shame to see the way that the word ‘radical’ has been hijacked by certain interests in the political and media landscape. Very often, what is meant by ‘radical’ here is ‘extreme’, or even ‘extremist’. In a culture that is purportedly ultra-liberal and in favour of freedom of expression, it is a way of cutting out voices that are not regarded as part of the reasonable spectrum of opinions. You can be a feminist, but you can’t be too feminist. This often goes along with the cartoon image of the hairy-pitted dungaree wearing ‘feminazi’. You are allowed to discuss these issues in the public sphere with us, provided you get a nice haircut and do your make-up first. If you are not prepared to conform to visual expectations of femininity, then you are ‘radical’, and therefore not part of the conversation. ‘Radical’ as a pejorative term is, in this context, utterly obnoxious, and aims to shut people out of public discourse. More on that shortly.

Now, that paragraph looks very much like a liberal feminist point, and to a degree it is. I place a great deal of importance on there being a diversity of voices, opinions and ways of living. Following in the liberal tradition of John Stuart Mill (and not in the liberal tradition of John Rawls) I believe that this vibrancy and noise is part of how we can learn to develop and flourish as individuals and as a society. Notice that what is implied by this is that some ways of living and associating are better for us than others – there is such a thing as development, progress and a good life for human beings. This form of liberalism is sometimes called ‘perfectionist’ liberalism.

For a Rawlsian liberal, the political theorist is supposedly neutral between different ideas of what good lives, and good ways of associating, must be. Sure, they might have their own ethical views, their own ideas about what it would be to flourish as a person and as a society, but in terms of deciding how the basic structures of society should be set up, they have to keep those under their hats when they are thinking about political theory. This embodies a presumption that we should not take one person’s view to be ultimately authoritative, and to trump the views of others. Political theory must be neutral between different conceptions of the good life for human beings. This is known as ‘anti-perfectionist’ liberalism.

Now the problem is that this is, contrary to what Rawls says that he intends, an embodiment of a particular view of the good – namely, liberalism. This means that while non-liberal ethical and political views can be aired within a society, it is only the liberal voice that gets to determine its basic structures. This takes the force out of all non-liberal positions – all voices that are simply permitted within the structure are a clamour of different cries for attention, or perhaps nothing more than a range of lifestyles that one might choose, just as we might prefer different flavours of ice cream. Marxism, for example, is a viewpoint that might be expressed within such a context, but the context strips it of all meaning. This relates to something that concerned Mill – it wasn’t enough that we should simply be able to utter particular forms of words as though they were some sort of incantation – they had to be living breathing ideas with whose meaning we engaged.

When applied to feminism, the problem with the anti-perfectionist approach is that it leads to the conclusion that, provided people are given certain legal negative freedoms, the battle has been won. It is not simply that pornography, strip-clubs, pay differentials and so on are not banned, it is that it is not valid to argue about them, to suggest that they are bad. They are someone’s free choice, and therefore not something that can be reasonably disputed or criticised (or at least, dispute or criticism can be registered, but not really debated, because it is simply a style of living, or a matter of taste). In addition to this, arguments about reorganising the basic structures of society – the mechanisms of government, the institution of the family, and so on, are simply invalid or meaningless.

Now while liberalism of the anti-perfectionist kind is often hallowed as being properly liberal, where perfectionist liberalism is regarded as in some sense illiberal because it dares to base the structure of society on a particular ethical outlook, it appears to me that the converse is the case. Liberalism of the Rawlsian kind renders certain kinds of discourse meaningless, reducing certain viewpoints and opinions to mere clamour. It is a constant source of frustration to me that merely questioning the ethical and social implications of a certain act or institution is taken as equivalent to saying that the thing in question should be banned, and when it is made clear that this is not what is meant, the response is often ‘well, that’s just your opinion, why are you bothering to even discuss it?’ It is as if I have just walked into the room an announced that I like cheese and onion crisps – well, so what?

Now it might be argued that this is no imposition on freedom, because, after all, you can still express your views. Nobody is telling you to shut up. But anyone familiar with the workings of patriarchy will be aware that freedom is not as simple as that. Nobody forces us to wear clothes that restrict our movement, to put on make-up every day, to spend huge proportions of our incomes on our physical appearance, but we live in social conditions that make it very hard not to do these things, and this is all the more pernicious because the coercion is all around us, and not easily pinned on an identifiable patriarch. As Sandra Bartky puts it:

‘…the disciplinary power that is increasingly charged with the production of a properly embodied femininity is dispersed and anonymous; there are no individuals formally empowered to weild it; it is, as we have seen, invested in everyone and in no one in particular. This disciplinary power is peculiarly modern. It does not rely upon violent or public sanctions, nor does it seek to restrain the freedom of the female body to move from place to place. For all that, its invasion of the body is well-nigh total’ (‘Foucault, Femininity and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power’ in      Bartky, Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression (London: Routledge, 1990)

So in short, I do not reject liberal feminism, but I reject forms of it that do not take liberty seriously. There are more ways to dominate, control and silence than simply passing laws or imposing physical constraint.

So what about radical feminism? Well, as I have already said, we must reject the pejorative sense of the word (sorry New Left Project) for reasons that might be described as good liberal ones (albeit Mill’s liberalism, and not Rawls’ version). But many feminists describe themselves as radical feminists. As with liberal feminism, this might have a number of different meanings, which may or may not overlap. In a discussion with my friend Jamie, we picked out four different broad groups of ideas that might be taken as hallmarks of radical feminism. There are probably more, and we might quibble about the way that they are grouped. This is not supposed to be exhaustive or authoritative.

1. Omnipresence of patriarchy

I have already talked about this one. The idea here is that we can’t separate off individual pockets of life that are or are not ‘feminist issues’. Gender oppression, in a patriarchal society, is something that is constantly present to those affected by it, and it imposes itself on a whole way of being in the world. This is something that I agree with. Although there may be some situations where gender oppression might not be the first thing that we mention, it is constantly a factor in female experience. One way in which I ascribe to this that may be controversial, even by the standards of those who broadly agree with the ‘omnipresence of patriarchy’ thesis, is that I take the role of the body to be a foundational aspect of this oppression. The ways in which women are socialised to experience their bodies at all times as objects, rather than as the loci of consciousness, experience and activity, is to me a vital aspect of my feminism. This is somewhat in tension with some aspects of liberal feminist thought, where freedom is often conceptualised as transcending the body, or as ‘mind over matter’.

2. Transformation of consciousness.

Related to this is the idea of what liberation would consist in. For many who describe themselves as radical feminists, freedom from explicit legal or physical constraints is not sufficient. Radical change requires a personal transformation of consciousness that cannot be achieved only through legislation or superficial equality of opportunity. As I made clear earlier, I also agree with this.

3. Gender as the primary or foundational mode of oppression.

Here I disagree. This is something that came up years ago when I was discussing feminism with a late and much-missed colleague called Soran Reader, whose conversation was as exciting and stimulating as it was frequently infuriating. Soran has been a great influence on my feminism, and on my philosophy generally, and, true to what she would have wanted, I don’t always agree with her. She said that when she described herself as a radical feminist, she meant that she held the foundational form of oppression in the world to be the oppression of women by men. Other modes of oppression were secondary to that, and any solution to oppression had to begin with the emancipation of women.

At first glance, this may look very similar to the point about the omnipresence of patriarchy in patriarchal societies, but it is distinct from it. For example, a Marxist might accept the omnipresence of patriarchy thesis, and still maintain that the path to human emancipation had to begin with class-consciousness and the overthrowing of capitalism. I would agree with neither point of view. Volumes have been written on this subject, and volumes more probably need to be written, but in short, I believe that modes of oppression are intertwined and multifaceted. Some critiques of the notion of the foundationality of gender oppression have argued that this is related to the fact that feminism is dominated by white middle-class women like myself. I think that they probably have a point.

4. Gender Essentialism

Many who describe themselves as radical feminists hold some thesis about the correlation between a certain kind of body and a female gender identity. There are variations on this theme, but often the idea is that the way that women are oppressed, although historically conditioned, relate to aspects of the female body which are not historically conditioned (the reproductive body, for example). Variations on this thought often reach a range of conclusions that I would want to reject. For example (a) gender is binary (b) there is no such thing as a trans woman (c) men can’t ever be feminists, only allies, (d) we can understand gender in a way that is totally abstracted from history, and so on.

The opposite of this view is often taken to be a kind of gender constructivism – the idea that gender identity doesn’t really map onto anything – that it is all down to social conditioning and arbitrary social categories.

I want to reject that idea too. In general terms, I think that ‘nature or nurture’ talk is often horribly misguided. The idea that we can look at biological bodies in isolation from culture, or some kind of free-floating disembodied mind which is free from biology, strikes me as a way of thinking that we are best off without. I haven’t fully explored my ideas about gender essentialism in particular, but my suspicion is that both horns of this dilemma rest on a fundamental misconception of the relationship between human beings and the world in which they exist and associate with each other. Further to this, there is interesting work by ecofeminists about the association between nature and the feminine, which aims to challenge a lot of dichotomies that underpin both the oppression of women by men, and the oppression of nature by humanity. We’re talking stuff like nature/nurture, nature/culture, active agent/ passive matter and so on. Look up Val Plumwood’s Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, you won’t regret it.

So, what sort of feminist am I? Am I in the liberal camp or the radical one? Am I a gender essentialist, or a gender constructivist? Am I sex-positive or sex-negative?

Well, this week, I suppose I am a radical liberal socialist ecofeminist. Ask me next week, and there will probably be different words in there, or the same ones in a different order. The point is that any labels and terms like this can be useful, they can sometimes act as shorthand for a complex of ideas. But just like many other notions within feminism, such as ‘privilege’ and ‘patriarchy’ (yes- I know I haven’t explained what I think about this one much) they can sometimes mask a vast array of finer distinctions, create false enmities, discourage us from thinking for ourselves and lead us into serious error. What sort of feminist am I? I’m the sort of feminist who likes to think about ideas, preferably over a pint in a nice pub with a bunch of friendly people with different perspectives. Or, you know, we could talk about other stuff too.

Body Positivity, Street Harassment, and the Erotic

Below is a talk I delivered for an International Women’s Day event organised by the University of East Anglia’s Feminist Society

What I am going to do today is not so much a detailed philosophical enquiry (I only have 20 minutes) but instead I want to talk seriously about street harassment, and suggest a few ways that philosophy might help us to think about it. Cat-calling, wolf-whistling, groping and other forms of harassment that occur in public spaces are alarmingly widespread, and are generally not taken all that seriously.  We are encouraged to simply ignore it, to ‘take it as a compliment’, or even worse, we are blamed for where we choose to walk or what we choose to wear, as though we have brought it upon ourselves.  At best, we are told to treat street harassment as a minor and inevitable irritation, and at worst, to view it as an expression of a natural human sexuality which we encourage through behaving or dressing in a provocative manner.  The victim of street harassment who complains is simultaneously a slut and a prude.

So first of all, I want to try to express at least one of the reasons why this is not a trivial irritation, but something far more fundamental, and secondly I want to explain why I think that tackling street harassment is not opposed to sexuality or the erotic, but instead that dealing with this problem is something that goes hand-in-hand with a positive attitude to sex and eroticism.

I’m going to begin with a quote from the philosopher Sandra Lee Bartky, describing a fairly typical case of street harassment.  This was written more than twenty years ago, but I suspect the description will sound very familiar:

It is a fine spring day, and with an utter lack of self-consciousness, I am bouncing down the street. Suddenly I hear men’s voices. Catcalls and whistles fill the air. These noises are clearly sexual in intent and they are meant for me; they come from across the street. I freeze. As Sartre would say, I have been petrified by the gaze of the Other. My face flushes and my motions become stiff and self-conscious. The body which only a moment before I had inhabited with such ease now floods my consciousness. I have been made into an object. While it is true that for these men I am nothing but, let us say. a “nice piece of ass,” there is more involved in this encounter than their mere fragmented perception of me. They could, after all, have enjoyed me in silence. Blissfully unaware, breasts bouncing, eyes on the birds in the trees, I could have passed by without having been turned to stone. But I must be made to know that I am a “nice piece of ass”: I must be made to see myself as they see me. There is an element of compulsion in this encounter, in this being-made-to-be-aware of one’s own flesh; like being made to apologize, it is humiliating. It is unclear what role is played by sexual arousal or even sexual connoisseurship in encounters like these. What I describe seems less the spontaneous expression of a healthy eroticism than a ritual of subjugation.

 ‘On Psychological Oppression’, in Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression

While street harassment is not traumatic on the level of rape or physical assault, it is a great deal more than a mere irritation.  We often talk about objectification as what is wrong here, but very often we don’t think so much about what it means.  Here it is very clear.  The victim is transformed into an object, both by being viewed as nothing more than an object in the eyes of the other, but also in being made to feel that she is an object.  We can think of an object in contrast to a subject. A subject is one who sees things and acts upon the world, while an object is something that is seen and has things done to it.  An object is something that can be stripped down into its component parts – breasts, thighs, arse, vagina – with no essential loss.  Each of these is an object no less than the object that they compose.  A subject, stripped down in this way, is no longer a subject.  This is because what we view as important about the subject is what is sometimes described as her ‘inner life’, her thoughts, beliefs, desires and intentions.  With the object, all that we regard is the physical material, which can be taken apart with impunity with nothing significant being lost in the process.

So when we are whistled or shouted at in the street, whether this is in a supposedly complimentary way, or whether the cat-call is an insulting one, we become profoundly aware of this physicality and fragmentation. While before we could easily and transparently interact with the world around us, listening to the birdsong in the trees or enjoying a private daydream, the objectifying act means that we are frozen, we can no longer have a free and easy interaction with our environment, because our physicality gets in the way. We have to manoeuvre this awkward collection of physical parts which stand between us and a world that was previously so accessible, more aware that we are seen than aware of what we can see. And this sudden self-perception is forced upon us, and sprung on us without warning: a loss of personal autonomy and a reduction to flesh that is coerced and unexpected.

This is one instance of a broader culture that frequently forces women into an uncomfortable awareness of themselves as objects. We are told that we occupy too much space, that our breasts are too small, our bums are too big, that unless we buy a particular brand of cereal we will never have that all-important ‘swimsuit body’.  This is not just something imposed by men, women are encouraged to gaze at magazines which point out the cellulite on a celebrity body or speculate about whether someone has had a facelift.  We objectify people, and reflect this back upon ourselves as objects, our worth determined by whether we are larger or smaller objects, older or younger looking objects, than they are.  The cat-call or wolf-whistle is a sharp reminder, in case we are starting to enjoy the world around us or get lost in our own thoughts, that we are nothing more than lumps of flesh.

But might this not lead us to support the voices that tell us we should not be dressing that way if we don’t want to attract unwanted attention?  Some would say that it is the sexualisation of society that leads to the street harassment, and it also leads to the provocative clothing that is seen to provoke it.  Perhaps we need to regard ourselves as less as objects, as well as complaining about others seeing us as such, and that the way that we present ourselves physically is part of this, along with our own attitude to flirtation and sex.  But this seems pretty problematic.  First of all, it veers heavily in the direction of victim-blaming.  Secondly, it seems just as controlling of women – we don’t want a situation where women are caught in an impossible situation where their freedom is restricted from all different directions in a range of contradictory ways.  Thirdly, it doesn’t seem much fun – most of us like to feel sexually attractive, at least some of the time.  Rejecting this plays into the hands of those who wish to silence the opponents of street harassment by accusing us of being prudish or opposed to sex.

Here we need to make a separation between what is objectifying on one hand, and what is sexual – and in particular what is sexy or erotic – on the other. Through doing this, we need to think of sexuality less in terms of the insular ‘inner-lives’ of the sexual individuals in contrast with the flimsy outer husks of the bodies that they are directed towards.  The problem is not so much that we live in a highly sexualised culture – although we undoubtedly do – but that we live in one that is sexualised in a particular way.

Think about one of those really spine-tingling erotic encounters – it could be in the bedroom, but it could equally be something like meeting someone’s glance in mutual attraction, or a first moment of physical contact.  In such scenarios one is immediately made aware of oneself as flesh.  There is a sudden and overwhelming awareness of one’s physicality.  So far, it might be difficult to distinguish this from the instance of street harassment.  But in this awareness, one also becomes aware of the other person registering that you are aware.  At the same time, they become profoundly aware of their own physicality, which one also registers in one’s own physical response. One’s physicality, and one’s awareness of the other’s physicality are reflected back through the other like the infinite reflections we might see when looking at a pair of facing mirrors.  Sartre described this as ‘double reciprocal incarnation’:

I make myself flesh in order to impel the Other to realize for herself and for me her own flesh. My caress causes my flesh to be born for me insofar as it is for the Other flesh causing her to be born as flesh.’ Being and Nothingness

The problem for Sartre is that it is impossible truly to apprehend the other person as being at once an object and a subject.  Either I regard him as an object, or by regarding him as a subject I apprehend myself as an object for him, and I am thus incapable of being at the same time a subject.  During sex, Sartre suggests that there is a struggle experienced between subjectivity and self-objectification, a sort of competition to attempt to objectify the other.  The whole activity is ultimately futile.  But in a way it is courageously futile, an attempt to reconcile the view of ourselves as bodies with our view of ourselves as conscious beings.  For Sartre, this duality haunts human life, but the two aspects can never truly be brought together.

Notice that we arrive at this through thinking of the body as a passive object and the self as an active subject.  If we do this, one can only be one or the other at any time.  But why suppose that this is the case? Any time we touch something, we are also being touched.  Any case of acting upon something is also a case of being acted upon.  The fingertips that caress another’s body are sensitive and responsive to the body that they touch, making an erotic encounter like a dance – an active mutual responsiveness.  There is a heightened awareness of the body, but not the body as a mere object that is acted upon and which can be decomposed or fragmented into its parts – the sexual body is at the same time, and just as much, an active, lived, subjective body.  This allows mutuality, in a sexual flirtation, as well as in sex (or at least in a good sex).

Street harassment not only fails to acknowledge such mutuality, but actively aims to cut off the possibility of it occurring.  The harasser will usually speed off in his car or blank the victim. It is not a bungled attempt at a genuinely erotic encounter, but actually closer to the converse of the erotic.  People often say that harassment of this kind is not about sex at all, but only about power.  This highlights an important aspect of it, and is a pretty good campaign slogan, but I’m not sure that it is quite true.  It is about sex, or sexuality at least, but it is about a kind of sexuality that is deeply unerotic.  Similar things might be said about the more general mode of sexualisation of our culture. The problem is not that we are subject to someone’s gaze, and that we ought to cover ourselves up and avoid sexual attention.  The problem is that our particular sexualised culture is built on a model of sexuality where one can only be presented at one time as either a subject or an object, where in reality it is starkly obvious that we are inescapably both – after all, the cat-calling would have no effect (and presumably no appeal for the perpetrators) if we really were mere objects.  You don’t usually see people hollering at lamp-posts. It is a practice built on treating people as something that they are not.

There is nothing wrong with wishing to be physically attractive to others: there can be a pleasure in it which, provided it doesn’t escalate into narcissism or anxiety, is a perfectly healthy one.  But the sexual body is active as well as passive, the lived body of a subject as well as an object.  Street harassment operates as though it is not.  For this reason, opposing street harassment is not prudish or opposed to sexuality: quite the opposite.  A realistic view of ourselves as sexual beings who seek positive erotic encounters leads to the conclusion that objectification of this kind must be resisted.

Remembrance Sunday 2012 (Written Sunday 11th November)

(in this note I make reference to a particular teacher. Some of the people reading this will know who it is, either through having been there, or through the general description making it fairly obvious. Please can I request that you do not mention his name in any comments: my home town is a small place, and I would not wish to upset anyone who knows this person. At the same time, I think I have the right to say what follows, because it is both personally and more broadly important, especially to those of us who work in education today.)

When I was a teenager, I went into school wearing a white poppy. Much to my surprise, my history teacher demanded that I take it off. I was called to the front of the class and interrogated, being told that I did not understand the significance of the sacrifice that people had made, that my sentiments were naïve, and that I was disrespecting all the people who had given their lives for our country, and those in the armed forces who continue to be prepared to do so. I felt a painful lump in my throat and my face burning as I tried to fight back tears, I felt an intense sense of unfairness at the inequality of the situation, but also a deep self-doubt and self-interrogation. Perhaps I hadn’t thought about it enough, and maybe I really was treating ruined lives and unthinkable deaths as a way of making an adolescent statement. At the same time, it seemed obvious that no matter how many clever arguments were thrown my way, war did ruin and destroy lives and communities, and that it should be avoided in anything except the most extreme circumstances. This was what I took the white poppy to stand for, and it seemed to me to be a modest point.

I stood with my feet rooted to the spot, completely at a loss. The simple question of what to do next had taken on the most pressing significance. I had pinned the thing to my blazer in the morning thinking that it would pass with no more than a few questions or comments, but now I had all these arguments thrown at me, twenty-nine pairs of eyes staring at me in what seemed like an unbearable period of silence. To remove the poppy would be treating my teacher’s words as the last ones, but to keep it on might be nothing more than petty teenage stroppiness or posturing in the face of people who had risked far more than losing at some silly classroom standoff – that would make me a monster. I didn’t take the poppy off. I’d like to say that it was down to a principled stance, but it was really more to do with paralysis and confusion, and the sense that if I did anything or made a single movement the tears would become unavoidable and I would be humiliated in front of the whole class. I was sent out of the lesson, which was a relief because it allowed me to rush to the girls loos to splash cold water on my face so that I could pretend that I had been braver than I was.

The teacher’s behaviour was an abuse of authority, and I try to bear it in mind when I teach students, particularly when I teach them applied ethics and political philosophy. There had been another similar moment with the same teacher when we were studying the cold war, although it didn’t reach quite the same heights of drama. I had asked whether we really had a right to tell other countries they could not have nuclear weapons when we continued to have them ourselves. This was apparently a ‘stupid’ remark, and one that I would never have made if I had had any understanding of history or politics. The teacher’s age, position of authority and knowledge of facts was used to silence my opinions, and in fact, for years I believed that he must be right, despite not being able to shake off the contrary conviction.

On a later occasion I got quite a different view of the same teacher. We were on a school trip to the battlefields of the Somme. We had been given the usual safety talk about how we should leave anything we find there on the ground – unexploded material from the First World War still occasionally surfaces there, and obviously needs to be treated with extreme caution. One of our school party found a hand grenade, and despite what we had been told, came running along towards the rest of the group waving it in the air and shouting about what he had found. The teacher ran ahead to meet him before he got close to the rest of the group, wrestled the grenade from his hands and threw it as far as he could to an unpeopled area. Of course, it didn’t explode, but I was struck by how the teacher’s sense of his duty of care went beyond legal obligation and extended to putting himself at direct personal risk. He had struck me as cold and authoritarian – this act did not contradict that, but it illustrated the complexity of human beings. A person who behaves in ways that we regard as hurtful and unethical can surprise us with great actions – in this case an act of great moral courage.

He was a man who took fear and violent death extremely seriously. It is understandable, although not excusable, that a pupil who did not grasp these things, and who wore symbols that he saw as undervaluing human sacrifice, would annoy him in the way that I did. Where I think that he made a mistake was in thinking that the white poppy is supposed to stand in opposition to the red one. When I think about the First World War, I think about the communities that lost vast numbers of young men. I think of my brothers, my partner, my best friends, and even my nephews, who are coming up to the ages of many boys who lied about their age in order to fight in the war. I think about all of those close, unique, complicated personal attachments, made special by how particular they are to that irreplaceable person, and imagine (or fail to imagine) not losing just one, but many of them. It is not just the loss of those who are close to you, but the loss of them to something that is so anonymising – an entire complicated special significant individual is reduced to a machine that kills and a piece of flesh that is killed. Respect for the troops and all who love them, rather than respect for a sentimental myth, requires that this sacrifice should never be made for trivial purposes such as economic gain or political manouvering. Wilfred Owen expressed far more deeply than I ever could that ‘dulce et decorum est…’ undermines the significance of a human life lost or destroyed through a needless war. It also undermines the fight of those all over the world who have no choice but to take up arms against the murder and torture of members of their communities and families. To make this point is not to disrespect the troops, but to respect them as people with lives of their own.

The teacher was right that I was naïve, and I still am. Nobody in my immediate family saw active combat in the Second World War, and although I have friends who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the reality of it is very distant to me. My grandfather, who was of an age to go out and fight Nazi Germany, stayed at home because he was an architect; a reserved occupation. His work during the war involved rebuilding areas of Bristol that had been destroyed by bombing. He was also a committed socialist and a local Labour politician. While others were out risking their lives to fight a totalitarian regime, my grandfather was involved in trying to build a country that would be worth living in – housing that would allow people to live happy flourishing lives, regardless of their earnings or social status. These are, or should be, two aspects of the same thing.

Today I wear a white poppy alongside a red one. It is easy for us on the left to trivialise military service and denigrate soldiers without really intending to, in order to make abstract theoretical points about politics. But real respect for them involves making ours a country that is worth living in, and only employing force when it is a genuine defence against the horrors of oppression and violence. If this is to be possible, people must not be forced into blind obedience to authority – they must be allowed to express opinions, challenge oppression and fight violence. This is not just about a lack of constraints at the level of what our government can do, but has to begin with how people are raised and educated. If we are made to learn a particular conception of the world, and made to think that any challenge to it is a feature of our ignorance or pig-headedness, we may become citizens of a country that can sleepwalk into self-destruction, and even when this is not the case our theoretical freedoms become far less valuable. Peace is not an end-state that we can eventually achieve and then relax – achieving it is a constant struggle requiring that we are awake, engaged, critical, caring, imaginative and mutually respectful.

To the English Defence League (written Friday 9th November 2012)

This is what I would like to say to the EDL, who are marching in Norwich tomorrow, but it is too long to put on a placard.

You say you want to preserve Englishness, so let me tell you about Englishness. Our country’s name means ‘Land of the Angles’. The Angles were a Germanic tribe from the bay of Kiel area of the Baltic sea. This is one of the many tribes that found a home in these islands that make up Britain. Over the centuries there have been many incomers: Anglo Saxons, Celts, Vikings, Romans, Normans… the list goes on. But we both know that Englishness is about so much more than etymology or genetics.

Englishness is about many things: languages, cultures, religions, ideologies and identities. It is a living culture that carries its complicated history with it, and that is what makes it so valuable. We have a language that mixes Old English, French, Old Norse, Gaelic, Scots and Latin with the languages of millions of other people who have settled here. We have a Roman alphabet and Arabic numerals, our favourite foods are Italian, Chinese, Indian and Turkish. The dominant religions in England originate in the Middle East, as does our (fictional) patron saint. Much of the music we love has its origins in black American culture, and can be traced (as, incidentally, we all ultimately can) to Africa through the slave songs that are also part of our troubled history.

Every revolution, development and change in England has brought waves of people from all over the globe, most of whom have initially been met with racism and bigotry, but many of whom still found that this was a place they could love, where they could raise children, and where they could learn from and add to our culture.

This is England. There would be no Englishness without it. Our history is a history of a living, dynamic country, and to love England is to love the ways that we are built on change and diversity. John Donne wrote that ‘No man is an island, Entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, A part of the main.’ These islands are not an island entire of itself, cut off from the world that surrounds it. That world, and our relationships with it, constitute us; these ever-changing relationships are what makes England what it is. To be proud of one’s Englishness is to be proud of being a part of a history and a culture whose stories originate from and extend to all corners of the globe. Through our Englishness we are all influenced by what is Anglo-saxon, Viking, Celtic, African, Chinese, Roman and Middle-Eastern, regardless of our ethnic origins. To be English is always to be more than just English, and you cannot help but express that every time you use our language.

When you try to stagnate and ‘purify’ our culture, you do it violence. It is an attempt to preserve a complex identity in aspic while denying its complexity. This cuts off the oxygen that our culture needs to survive – we breathe change and diversity; without it there would be no Englishness left. Love of our history ought to leave us with a sense of the legacy that we can leave for future generations, and we must leave them a culture that they can act within and change as previous generations have, not a mummified corpse in a museum.

We speak the language of Shakespeare, whose poetry deals with interracial love, and whose plays portray incomers and visitors to strange new lands. Shakespeare wrote that ‘Love is not love, which alters when it alteration finds’. Your professed love of your country is not true love, but rather the self-indulgent obsession of the lover who worships a mythologised version of the one they claim to love. This is a ‘love’ that shades imperceptibly into resentment. You are blind to the beauty, dynamism and complexity of the country that you inhabit, and that is terribly sad. You do not love England, or Englishness. You love a dangerous idea that is fuelled by hatred and self-importance, and that blinds you to England itself. Your ideology is directly opposed to Englishness, and seeks to destroy it.

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Naked Photographs

I have made it very clear in the past that I do not have a great deal of sympathy with the monarchy or with the military, or with other things that tend to be stalwarts of the conservative value set.  Peculiarly I now find myself agreeing with Boris Johnson when he said that ‘I think it’d be disgraceful if a chap wasn’t allowed to have a bit of fun in Las Vegas anyway’.

I suspect Johnson’s view is coloured by a certain view of what a red-blooded young ‘chap’ should enjoy getting up to, combined with a certain laissez-faire attitude to people’s private conduct.

In some ways I do agree on both points, although from a very different political perspective.  It really should not shock or surprise anyone to hear that an army guy actually rather enjoys fooling around with naked women, and I have no problem with that.  There are loads of major problems with the whole idea of a military. I suspect that it is unfortunately necessary that we should have an army  (albeit on a much smaller scale than at present) but it is still a dreadful reality that military training involves teaching people to kill other human beings, being able to normalise this to some extent, and surrendering moral autonomy to a chain of command.  The fact that members of the military enjoy close physical contact with attractive naked people really should not be a cause for concern; in fact it is at least a remnant of autonomous humanity that they can cling on to – good for them.  Any talk of ‘bringing the forces into disrepute’ or other sermonising bollocks is precisely that.  The army invades service-people’s lives to a massive extent, and its culture probably also has some impact on sexual attitudes, but an explicit proscription on what people can get up to in hotel rooms is stamping its authoritarian foot in places that are undoubtedly excessive and unnecessary, even within the very odd and morally questionable requirements of a functioning military.

I would say similar things about the very closely connected institution of the royal family, although there are none of the compelling reasons for its continued existence as there are for the military. The whole idea of royalty steps on the principle of people being free to develop their own life-plans.  While we all have to respond to the historical and cultural factors that partially shape our identities, I strongly believe that nobody’s life story should be completely written for them from the moment of their birth.  Harry is lashing out and getting up to stuff that he actually wants to do – I’d be exactly the same in his situation (as if I needed that sort of excuse). And strip billiards: that is frankly a hilarious subversion of the notion of the proper recreational activities of the English gentleman, well done.

Even if we thought that we had some right to know what a future king is getting up to, this surely wouldn’t apply here.  Harry’s line in succession means that he is unlikely to be king, if at all, for forty years.  It does not seem vital that we know what the monarch was getting up to in a bedroom four decades ago, and even if it were, this would only seem to be the case once it was apparent that he was going to become the monarch in the immediate future.

The British press is saying a lot of ridiculously pompous and falsely high-minded things in defence of their coverage of the story and publication of the photographs.  The Sun’s managing editor David Dinsmore said that not publishing the photographs would be ‘perverse’.  The argument for this is that they are already widespread in the public domain, but so what? Most newspapers last time I checked were not reproductions of every corner of the internet – even the most inane tabloids are not cover to cover hardcore pornography and lolcats.  The job of newspapers is to be selective, and to figure out which stories and images are genuinely in the public interest.

Now we should note here that ‘in the public interest’ does not necessarily mean the same as ‘what the public are interested in’.  Dinsmore argued that the Sun’s readers had ‘a right’ to see the photographs.  I am happy to admit that my philosophical research on theories of rights is now a year or two old, and that this field is one that is continually developing, but last time I checked, gawping at photographs of anyone naked, however appealing it may be, was not considered by any reputable figures in the field to be essential content of anyone’s claim rights.

The thing with rights is that we need to understand them as fundamentally connected to duties.  There are various different ways that this connection can be articulated (if you are interested, have a look at Welsey Newcombe Hohfeld’s page-turner Fundamental Legal Conceptions as Applied in Judicial Reasoning) but the most common form of right in moral, political and legal theory is the ‘claim-right’.  When someone has a claim-right, this means that they have a moral, political or legal claim that some other party, be it a named group or individual or people in general, have a duty to fulfil.  If I have a claim-right to some piece of information or imagery, as in the case of the Harry porn, this means that either everyone, or some specific person has a duty concerning my access to it.

At its most minimal, this might be a negative right.  All this means is that nobody should be permitted to prevent me from accessing it.  If this is what is at stake here, then The Sun’s decision to publish has nothing to do with the right – the pictures are, as Dinsmore himself said, already out there.  Nobody is standing in my way of sitting at my laptop with a chilled glass of white enjoying an afternoon of Harry-gazing, although as it happens I think that there are far preferable ways of satisfying those sorts of urges, online and otherwise.

Another kind of claim-right is a positive right.  This is presumably what Dinsmore means if he means anything at all.  This means not only that people are not permitted to prevent me from accessing the content of my claim, but that some person, group, or people in general are under an obligation actively to do something to allow my access to it.  This is presumably why Dinsmore feels the need to publish – the weight of responsibility on his shoulders concerning this grave act of public service must be absolutely immense.  This is not, as it turns out, a positive claim-right in rem (meaning that everyone has a duty to meet my claim) it is, it seems, a positive claim-right in personam, which means that it falls upon a specified person, in this case the saintly Dinsmore, to exercise his active duty of hawking dirty photos.

Apologies for all the jargon I chucked your way in the past few paragraphs (dry formal rights theory dripping in sarcasm probably isn’t everyone’s idea of good holiday reading) but I think that a proper examination of what it might mean for someone to have a right shows Dinsmore’s claims to be enormously confused.  His ‘public domain’ argument establishes, at best, a negative right.  This implies absolutely nothing about the rightness or otherwise of The Sun printing the pictures.  In fact, if we are to take him seriously in his conclusions, it would suggest that the press are continually under active moral, legal or political duties to publish everything that is already out there.  This would be a serious, groundless and demanding restriction on the freedom of the press, dictating not just occasional restraint, but also determining editorial content.

I have already dealt with the suggestion that the public may have a right to know because of Harry bringing either the royal family or the military into disrepute, but the most convincing ‘public interest’ defence given so far relates to security. It has been argued that the publication of the photographs highlights a major security risk to members of the royal family which needs to be addressed. But hang on a minute, what is actually being said here? Is the argument that a 28 year old man, well aware of his own high profile and capable of making his own choices, should not be able to invite women back to his room for a game of strip billiards? Come on, we’ve all done it.  In this situation, Harry is entitled to weigh up the risks to his security.  On this occasion he decided to take the chance, and for pretty darn understandable reasons. We should also note that he didn’t seem to require much help in searching for hidden weapons.  This ‘security risk’ is one that cannot be avoided unless we were prepared to do so by restricting what consenting adults are allowed to do in the bedroom.

What I do not want to do here is offer an argument for gagging the press.  I am undecided about whether Harry should have been able to prevent the publication of the photographs, but I am certainly not in favour of the press being banned from running the story.

But what I do oppose is the  lofty claims about press responsibilities and the rights of the British public.  There is no duty to run with this stuff, and we have no right to see it.  I would have more respect for people like Dinsmore if they stuck with arguments about how they should not be restricted in running stories, even when they are sordid, unnecessary and tinged with a salacious false disapproval.  Dinsmore could argue that while he has no obligation to feature this stuff, nobody has a right to stop him: then the ethical burden would be on his grubby little sensationalist conscience, and not shrugged off disingenuously in the name of some concocted higher good.

Why it is (philosophically) OK to like the Olympics

I realise that it has been a while since my last post.  A number of things, including a forthcoming job interview, have conspired against me doing an update.  Another reason is that the blogging world appears, like most other media, to be enthralled with what a certain dandelion-headed classicist describes as the ‘Geiger-counter of olympo-mania’. I’ve been thinking about this a bit, and didn’t want to update until I had a few things to say about it.

In a previous post on the current state of politics, I had a bit of a rant about Cameron’s concept of ‘Englishness’ and how the conservative party is claiming political currency from connecting a range of things (the Olympics, the jubilee, the royal wedding, etc.) in a particular way that makes any person who rejects any element of this picture appear to be an unpatriotic curmudgeon.  One of the things that I mentioned there was the rather vague notion of the ‘Olympic spirit’ as representing certain values.  One of the things that concerned me about this was how it was presented as something very English, but also something that the whole globe should aspire to.  The obvious notes of imperialism in this are rather alarming.  There are also other Olympic concerns: for example, the Olympics will have a considerable carbon footprint associated with large construction projects and with flying athletes, trainers and spectators in from all over the world.  There is also a worry that there is an element of bread and circuses in all of this – we are distracted from complaining about the obvious injustices in our current society by big flag-waving events that get people all excited.

However, when I was expressing all of this to my partner the other day, he rightly pointed out that while anger has an important role in motivating political action, an angry leftie can sometimes be as irritating a beast as many of his or her opponents who froth at the mouth in the pages of the Daily Mail.  There could, in some circumstances, be a certain degree of hypocrisy in complaining about the exploitation of the Olympics for tory political capital.  After all, we should not pretend that a government of different colours would not do exactly the same thing. We are all watching events from a certain perspective.  Attempting to say anything about large-scale national occasions without one’s own political views structuring one’s observations would be pretty much impossible.  I still think there are major concerns with the way the Olympic stuff has come into conservative rhetoric, but that is a worry about the rhetoric itself than about the fact that they are talking about the Olympics.  So I have become more positive. On the other hand, this positivity should not turn into something uncritical, as I will try to explain.

First of all, Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony was an absolute masterpiece.  It did a very impressive job of reclaiming the Olympics for the people of Britain.  Rather than the usual bland displays of national magnificence, it was virtually an essay on national identity.  It helped suggest ways in which we can be patriotic while being outward and forward looking, and acknowledging the troubled, divided and divisive aspects of our culture and our history.  The unexpurgated rendition of ‘Flower of Scotland’ was interesting here, as well as the much discussed celebration of the NHS, the inclusion of the wind-rush and the suffragists,  and the portrayal of workers and capitalists in a powerful evocation of our ‘dark satanic mills’.  I could mention a lot of other things here, but the point is that this was deeply embedded in history and tradition, while at the same time looking at where our problems lie and how the country might be truly progressive.  The ceremony was magnificently subversive while not for a moment appearing to undermine the joy of the occasion.  This is deeply significant: it allows us to own an occasion which for so much of its build up suggested a celebration of values that are alien or at least problematic for many people.  It will also give cultural and political theorists plenty of material to think about for quite some time.

Returning to the ecological concerns, I think that those are indeed a worry.  Any event on this global scale is going to have a significant environmental impact, and no matter how much we attempt to keep things as green as possible, such measures will be little more than token gestures.  I have some friends in the green movement who believe that this is enough to warrant a complete dismissal of the Olympics.  This is, I admit, a complicated one for me.  However, the scale of ecological damage caused by the Olympics is dwarfed by the havoc wreaked by war, irresponsible deforestation and agriculture techniques and the activities of many global corporations whose activities are both unecological and inhumane.  This is not supposed to count as an excuse – obviously the fact that hitting you in the face is nothing compared to the mafia murdering you does not suggest that hitting you in the face is a reasonable thing to do.  Nor am I attempting to argue that the Olympics will have a dramatic causal effect in preventing war, altering our current economic practices and so on (the empirical evidence would be hard to find, and the involvement of MacDonald’s, Coca-Cola and the like count directly against this).

Rather, I am interested in the symbolic value of the Olympics in representing the fact that we are all part of one world, that we have physical bodies that are vulnerable to our environments, and that the people in other parts of the globe who will suffer most as a result of climate change are real people, with their own narratives that we can engage with.  Lenin was not a ground breaking philosopher, but he did make a very prescient observation.  He argued that one obstacle to the overthrowing of capitalism would be globalisation.  As this occurred, he thought that the alienated workforce would be shifted to poorer countries in the world, while those in wealthy nations would become increasingly part of the bourgeoisie.  Ordinary people in wealthy nations would not observe the suffering and exploitation that went into what they use and consume, and this would encourage a comfortable complacency on their part.  Unlike in Marx’s day, the oppressed masses would not be so much on the doorstep that it would take an extreme effort of will to ignore them.

This is not simply the case with workers exploited in production, as Lenin argues.  It is also true of environmental crises.  The Olympics does help to highlight people from these countries, and their experiences, although this could be done a lot more.  For example, Tuvalu is a Pacific island nation between Australia and Hawaii.  It is a former British protectorate with a population of around 11,000 people.  They entered an Olympic team for the first time in the Beijing Olympics.  Their team consists of two competitors in athletic events and one weightlifter.  At its highest point, Tuvalu is 4.6 meters above sea level.  As a result of climate change, it is likely that much of the country will be submerged.  The dramatic effects on the country’s economy is liable to have severe effects on funding available for sport and leisure activities, and the fact that land will be at a premium (with low-lying flat land particularly at risk) is likely to have a detrimental effects on the availability of sport and training facilities.  This is only one small isolated example – more media attention on the stories of those athletes competing in the games could really help to highlight the fact that our activities in one part of the world cannot be separated from the fates of people elsewhere.  To consistently proceed by weighing up costs and benefits, be they economic or ecological, in a utilitarian fashion carries with it the danger of making us small minded and parochial.

All this ‘one world’ stuff brings me back to the idea of the ‘Olympic spirit’ or ‘Olympic values’.  I have mentioned my worries about imperialism here.  It strikes me that any of the vague notions that we have about such values are not specifically British: although concepts of ‘sportsmanship’, ‘fair play’ and so on are often part of the national story that we tell ourselves, I don’t see much evidence that they are things that we exemplify more than anyone else.  Other aspects of the ‘Olympic values’ business have a lot to do with cosmopolitanism and open and equal dialogue across the world.  We are good at some aspects of this (the BBC World Service is, I think, a good example) but in other respects our horizons can be painfully narrow.  So let’s put to bed the idea that there is, in reality, some fundamental link between Britishness and Olympianism in a way that privileges us over the rest of the world.

Let’s focus in on an aspect that is frequently considered to be a very British thing – the idea of sportsmanship.  This idea is in itself a very complicated one. People often talk about a ‘golden age’ of sportsmanship, but we should be suspicious of golden ages: what often appears to be golden is the artificial sepia tint of a sentimental instagram homage.  Some of the historical associations of sportsmanship are masculine, imperialistic and militaristic. It also has a lot to do with class.  Sportsmanship is traditionally thought to be a feature of the ‘gentleman amateur’.  He is a certain sort of chap: a chap who can afford to participate in sporting activities without having to earn a living through them, a chap who exemplifies the military virtue of chivalry (or something very like it): in short, he is the sort of chap who is fit to run an empire.  It is also worth noting that in football, there was an offence of ‘unsportsmanlike behaviour’ that was only recently altered to ‘unsporting behaviour’ in recognition of the fact that some women are actually pretty good at football too.

But I do not want to do away with sportsmanship (on reflection, let’s call it ‘sportingness’) all that quickly.  It has been a fantastic experience to watch so many of our athletes winning medals over the past couple of days.  One of the particular delights of this has been the sheer disbelief and humility that many of them have demonstrated.  They have been delighted just to be involved in an event of this kind, and generous in sharing the credit for their success with many other people.

The point here is both the old cliché that there is more to sport than winning, and also more than merely following the rules.  In fact, one of the reasons why ‘Olympic values’ are so difficult to formulate in a clear way is their resistance to being constrained within a system of rules.  We usually think of games as essentially rule-governed activities, but anyone with a fleeting acquaintance with Wittgenstein will know that ‘rule-governed activities’ are rather complicated things.  I mentioned the footballing offence of ‘unsporting behaviour’.  This is an interesting example because it is a non-rule masquerading as a rule.  I recall an anecdote, I’m not sure if it has any truth in it, about a guy being booked for unsporting behaviour after catching the ball in his turban, running toward the goal with it and heading it over the line.  There was no specific rule against this: it would be impossible to devise rules to cover all eventualities.  The ‘unsporting behaviour’ ‘rule’ exists so that a responsible well-placed judge, who is immersed in the game and understands (not simply in a rule-based way) what the game is really about, can use their practical wisdom to determine when players fail to honour that.  It is appropriate, given the home of the original Olympics, that this notion is more at home in Platonic or Aristotelian virtue ethics than in systems based on rules.  It is also interesting that while most rules of a game are in a sense morally neutral, in the sense that they are only rules because one decides that they are for the sake of that game, sportingness while being specific to a sporting arena appears to be more strongly binding, and to transcend different sporting activities.  We might say that it is a moral virtue specific to the sporting arena, or that it is a reflection of a broader more unified virtue through sport.  It cannot however be easily articulated, since knowledge of it is a kind of practical knowledge based on experience of sport, and not a principle that someone with no understanding of sport could simply learn and judge.

In some cases, the player might be faced with a dilemma: many famous anecdotes about ‘sportsmanship’ involve someone sacrificing an advantage to their team or nation for the sake of the broader value or integrity of the sport.  Loyalty is of course another kind of virtue.  It might not always be easy to say that the sporting thing to do is always straightforwardly the right one.  In a sense the player is left standing alone, isolated from the thousands or millions of eyes that are watching her, with her own freedom.  To privilege one virtue over another is already to presuppose that a side has been taken.  It is perhaps no surprise that football seems to have been so popular amongst existentialist philosophers.

But what I broadly want to say is that once we start to think in these terms, notions such as the ‘Olympic values’ may not be so mysterious, in that their inarticulability is a function of their involvement with practical activity.  Perhaps I might also have started illuminate some sense in which what appears to be a trivial sporting contest can have deeper kinds of significance.  Like the broader history of our culture so vividly portrayed in the opening ceremony, aspects of the ‘Olympic values’ may be complex and troubled in their history.  But in both cases, this does not mean that those things cannot be enjoyed.  What is often irritating about them is the uncritical and dangerous way that these ideas are used.  So I do not need to be a left-wing Olympic grump – I can enjoy the influx of medals with a clear conscience – just as long as I don’t need to run anywhere or lift anything.

Letter to the Prime Minister

Dear Mr Cameron (can I call you Dave?),

I am not accustomed to writing fan mail, but I thought I would make a rare exception.  Back in 2005, when you became the leader of the Conservative party, you said that ‘there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state’.  I just wanted to express my wholehearted agreement – it was as I am sure you are aware a very clever speech.  New Labour stopped believing in society a long time ago, and it had reached the point where believing in it was treated a little like the belief that there were fairies at the bottom of the garden.  No wonder your comments caught people’s imaginations.  But you seem to have gone off this idea a little – you haven’t expressed it recently, and I am curious about why this is the case.

The thing is, it seems to me that the words that you said then are even more relevant today than they were at the time.  You are an intelligent man, and I think you already have a good idea about what society means.  In the same speech, you said ‘I believe that if you trust people and give them more power and control over their lives, they become stronger, and society becomes stronger too, and I believe profoundly that we are all in this together.’  Indeed we are: society is about the people working together, helping each other to build the self-respect that is needed for flourishing lives and flourishing communities.  As you rightly observe, people need to be given power and control over their lives in order to do this – we don’t exist in a vacuum, and freedom is an empty concept when looked at on a purely individual level.  Individual autonomy is only possible when people are allowed that power and control over their own circumstances within a wider community.  I must say that it is refreshing to see a conservative leader who recognises this.

So that is society, and I observe its workings every day.  It includes my family, who offer each other mutual help and support.  It also includes my network of friends, and the way that relationships of this kind make life worth living.  But beyond that, it extends to wider communities – for me I see it both in the town where I was born and the one where I live now, and also in my work in the university, where I have been helping to educate university students and participating in research activity with my colleagues, who are a great source of support and advice.

This is quite clearly not the same thing as the state.  Under the control of your government, many of my family and friends are probably very grateful for the clear way in which you have demonstrated this.  Some of them have experienced debilitating medical conditions, and have been waiting for months without treatment.  Others have been seriously affected by workplace stress resulting in part from public sector cuts and increasing workloads that have gone along with them.  Some of my friends have had state benefits removed with very little notice, because having a good day when you go for a medical assessment means that you are fit to do a full time job every day, and do not need to pay for bills, rent and food in the meantime.  Perhaps all this may have seemed harsh at the time, but the important thing is that it reinforces your message.  Some of these people were probably under the illusion that the state was an embodiment of society – it was a good move to help them see that this was a misapprehension.

Of course, this message has been broadcast much more widely than my immediate circle of family and friends, and I thought it might please you that your hard work has not gone unnoticed.  Your efforts have been particularly apparent in the numbers of young men who are sleeping rough on the streets of my family’s home town – there were none before, only ‘hidden homeless’.  This is a very imaginative way of illustrating what we should not expect the state to do for us, and I’d like to congratulate you on this bold and courageous method of political education.

I have even noticed the fruits of your grand project in my workplace.  Students graduating during your time in office are unsure about whether they will find jobs, and since they are mostly under 25, it is not clear how or whether they will be able to get by in the meantime.  What an exhilarating way to begin your first few steps beyond university education!  Just to think, if they had walked straight into public sector jobs, or had funding for postgraduate study, their lives would have been mapped out for them.  Far better to give them the freedom that comes with not knowing what the future holds.  I can identify with their excitement – the current organisation of the Higher Education sector and the funding that it receives means that my own future is an equally open horizon.  I would not be able to say the same thing if I had an employment contract for next academic year.  All those in my situation, together with postgraduates who are entering the academic job market are bound to share in this sentiment.

My colleagues who remain in the department face an exciting new era too.  Past generations of British students (for example, many of those studying at our top universities in the 1980s) did not fully recognise the value of an academic education.  Making its value evident in £9000 annual fees will help students to understand that value in the appropriate way.  They will be especially appreciative of academics rising to the challenge of providing high quality teaching in the face of reduced staff and resources.  There will of course be some who feel they cannot afford the new fees: a big society requires people to occupy all sorts of different roles – what better way to make young people feel socially included than by letting them know their place in the community from an early age?

You truly are giving us all the power and control over our lives that you promised, and this is all thanks to your vivid demonstrations of the fact that society is not the same thing as the state.  I now realise that you have been absolutely right all along.  What your party needs to do now is to emphasise this message – we are all in it together, and we are now more in it than ever before.  We need to get beyond the juvenile delusion that the state is there to help us, and you have proved that you are the right man to communicate this vital idea.

Your comrade,

Liz

Romanticism (June 15th 2012)

Thinks it is sad how the word ‘romantic’ has taken on the kinds of associations that it has over the past hundred years or so. It has come to be connected to a particular kind of ‘love’, narrowly defined, between two people, taken apart from a community, and turned in upon each other. First there is the individual, then there is the couple, and then, perhaps, a very small nuclear family. ‘Roman…ce’ or ‘romanticism’, with the tonnes of expenditure and consumer waste that it creates is part of the perpetuation of this structure.

‘If a person loves only one other person and is indifferent to all others, his love is not love but a symbiotic attachment, or an enlarged egotism.’
Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving

It is also bound up with fairy tales, and with archetypes that real human beings constantly fail to measure up to. Even where ‘romantic’ is taken in a wider sense than the common use, it is often used to refer to what is unrealistic, what belongs in some fanciful world that lies beyond or above our own, and has little to do with what is really going on. Hence we have the positive ‘Ooooh, he’s so romantic’, alongside the negative ‘Isn’t that suggestion / political programme / view of humanity rather romantic?’

The romantic movement in art and literature was concerned in many cases with the real situations of people, and with what was present and possible in reality. ‘Jerusalem’ was not a distant land, or a promise of the next life, but rather something that we could build right here if we were prepared to take up the fight.

Yes, there was a sense that life was more than immediate appearances, but the beauty and truth of life was immanent in the world, not removed from it. Blake, Wordsworth and co.’s romanticism was rooted in the earth, both in the appreciation of the natural world and in the political aims of improving the situation of humanity.

Similarly, romanticism was about love, but the love that it describes is at once more general and more specific than the ‘romantic love’ of hearts and flowers and candlelight. It was more specific because of the immanence of truth and beauty in the particular. Features of each person, each object of natural beauty, each situation, demanded a loving attention that could only be achieved through an openness and receptivity to what that particular had to offer.

At the same time, such attentiveness leads the romantic, at least in Wordsworth’s case, to an understanding of how nature operates on many levels, and how it has a unity as well as a particularity. For Wordsworth, human beings are part of this. This is why the romantic can embrace the ideas of individuality, originality and self-direction, while having a deep and serious account of the notion of human fellowship. Through loving things in their particularity, we can achieve something like the idea of agape. It is only through this attention to the particular, and not through imposing preconceived abstractions or theoretical models that this becomes possible.

This is not to speak out against the notion of ‘romantic love’ as we might usually understand it. I would be a fool to do that. Rather, it is to say that the sort of attentiveness that we can have to a particular person should both reflect and absorb the idea that we are situated in a world that nurtures and supports us. The reclamation of the romantic is personal, political and ecological.