Archive

Ethics

The philosopher Immanuel Kant is perhaps best known for his “categorical imperative”– the notion that in any particular situation one should act in the way they’d want everyone else to act. As a pragmatist, I reject such totalizing claims. Still though, in rhetorical practice we should try to heed Kant’s dictum. In general people speak as they are spoken to. They act as those around them act. We are all responsible, therefore, for setting the tone of debate and discussion.

The above claim is based on a rather simple premise. In short, it assumes that humans are innately social creatures. We look to our environment to determine how we should behave. Much of this attunement is automatic, unconscious. How many times, for example, have you coughed or yawned or chewed your pencil because others around you did? Such adjustment is constant, both on a bodily level (yawning) and an epistemological level (what is understood as proper evidence in a debate, for example). Overtime, norms develop. They are never set in stone though. How we talk, think and engage is fluid, always changing based on the aggregate of millions of trivial encounters. To twist a popular faux Gandhi quote, like it or not, we are the change we see in the world.

Consider the following (particularly outlandish) example. A Florida gunmaker recently began marketing an assault rifle with special features which ensure that it can “never be used by Islamic terrorists.” He claims that his new weapon can combat religious violence. It does so by sporting a cross, various biblical verses and a label which indicates that “God wills” the use of the weapon (seriously).

As is glaringly apparent, this gunmaker, while claiming to be against religious violence, is following the same logic used by those he opposes. Both see violence as justified in the name of religious certainty. It’s just that to the gunmaker, ISIS or Al-Qaeda are certain about the wrong things. His truth and theirs diverge, but the way they go about promoting said truths—the rules they set for engaging with difference– are fundamentally similar.

Presumably my left-leaning reader can see the foolishness of the gunmaker’s stance. He thinks he can combat force with force, not realizing that the behavior he promotes (violence in the name of religion) only leads to force against force, ad infinitum. In short, the end he seeks is impossible under the logic his rhetoric demands.

I’d like to argue that many would-be justice seekers fall into the same trap as the Florida gunmaker. Take for example the idealistic young social justice warrior detailed here. She recently got into a public spat with her professor over whether European treatment of Native Americans constitutes “genocide.” She believes it does because her “grandparents told her.” OK. That’s fine. According to the above article though, she also seems to demand that her professor feel the same. That’s not fine.

A closer look reveals that the student’s logic, like that of the Florida gunmaker, is self-defeating. She claims that “I think X because of my experiences, hence everyone should think X.” Because humans are social creatures though—because we never act in a vacuum—she must assume that for her argument to gain traction others must utilize similar logic. Under such a regime her professor is inevitably pushed to mirror her claim: “I think Y because of my experiences, hence everyone should think Y,” he says. This leads to an unproductive exchange. No minds are opened, no growth is achieved. It’s just a shouting match. Which, as the article indicates, is exactly what happened.

So, to draw a tentative conclusion, I would argue that on a purely practical level we always have to be aware of the rhetorical tone we strike and the implications of the widespread adoption of that tone. If we condone violence, others will condone violence. If we refuse to accept multiple truths, others will do the same. In short, in rhetorical engagement it is unreasonable to expect others—be they ISIS or history professors—to act differently than we do.

Like some doomed, mythological seafarer, humans are fated to forever ply the waters between the real and the ideal. How we do this– how we conceive the relationship between what is good and what is possible– goes to the very heart of ethics. Let’s turn to (the Sunday afternoon basic cable) canon to shine some light on this issue.

The characters in 1980’s Urban Cowboy labor under the sign of the “real cowboy.” This is the ideal which Bud (John Travolta) aspires to embody and Sissy (Debra Winger) aspires to sexually and romantically possess. What constitutes the real cowboy remains unformed; like all ideals it exists only as an opaque network of affect-laden signifiers (a real cowboy = large hat, masculine aggression, ability to two step and ride a mechanical bull, etc). Despite this vagueness though, the idea of the real cowboy exerts great sway over the characters’ lives. It in essence drives the plot of the movie.

As a pragmatist, my domain is lived reality, that which comes to us within the flux of embodied experience. The “real cowboy” doesn’t fit within this category. You can’t touch or taste him. That doesn’t mean he’s not real in a pragmatic sense though. Ideals, whether the real cowboy or freedom or justice or Jesus, provide reference points by which we determine value. Sissy, for example, judges Bud against this standard. This is of course not a rational or systematic process; again, affect is key. But by guiding our behavior, ideals do have material impact.

It’s important to keep in mind the relationship between the ideal and the real though. Every ideal contains what Slavoj Zizek would label an “irrational excess.” This emerges in the form of a colonizing impulse. In other words, every ideal is innately destructive, seeking to destroy and remake everyday existence.

In Urban Cowboy, the destructive nature of the ideal is vividly exemplified by the character of Wes. After Sissy, in pursuit of her real cowboy, marries Bud, Wes (Scott Glen) appears on the scene. He’s an ex-con, capable of riding a real bull and engaging in an exponentially greater degree of masculine violence than Bud. Wes, it appears, is the real cowboy Sissy has sought. Of course she takes up with him, making plans to run off to Mexico together.

Wes– with his intensity and scars and psychopathic behavior– perfectly embodies the ideal ideal. He is an agent of disruption, destruction. His desire knows no bounds and the extent to which he will go to fulfill that desire knows no limit. He is the caliphate or Marxist utopia or “greatness” Donald Trump wants America to achieve. He is pure excess.

So how should we deal with Wes? It seems that one way is by refusing to fetishize him. We need to recognize that the ideal is not, and cannot be, real in the sense that Bud and Sissy’s (awesomely sexy) bodies are real. He’s an affective abstraction– a bundle of desires– and those desires, we must recognize, can and should be constantly reworked in response to our everyday lives. We can’t let our psychopathic ideals push us over the cliff, in other words.

So do Sissy and Bud manage to rein in the tyrannical excess represented by Wes? Unfortunately, I would say that they do not. Toward the end of the film Bud wins Sissy back by proving himself more adept at riding the mechanical bull than Wes, in essence supplanting the latter’s position as the living embodiment of the real cowboy. The ideal itself remains unchallenged though. This, I would argue, represents an ethical failure on the part of Bud and Sissy. Though Wes as a man is defeated, the irrational excess he embodies is left free to terrorize the honky-tonk.

This summer I happen to be tutoring a young, upwardly mobile Chinese woman. In trying to explain to her, in the limited vocabulary of an ESL lesson, my understanding of democracy, I could do no better than cite the example of novelist Vladimir Nabokov’s father. With compliments to Richard Rorty, I’d like to share this story and my interpretation.

Nabokov’s father, so the story goes, was a nobleman and liberal politician in pre-Soviet Russia. He died defending his political rival from an assassin’s bullet. This, Rorty notes, is the action of a true liberal. How so? As I understand it, Nabokov’s father valued the democratic process above all else. He rather die than allow another’s voice (even that of his political rival) to be silenced.

What ideas about the world could underpin such a belief?   First, there’s immense faith in the wisdom of the community, i.e. a recognition that all knowledge is social and that open debate and discussion is the best way to generate such knowledge. There’s also a willingness, to use a term from my last post, to disavow the role of the “subject who knows.” Instead of dictating policy, Nabokov’s father, through the promotion of democratic institutions, sought to create an environment in which policy could be cultivated. The most important thing was to get the conversation going and to keep it going, even if it meant getting killed.

I think the story of Nabokov’s father, and the great epistemological humility which underlies it, are something everyone should consider. The core idea– of respect for process rather than per-determined product– can also be applied to realms of action far removed from politics. As an example, consider rhetorical ethics, a theme which underlies much of this blog. What is the goal when we speak or write? Do we seek to make our mark upon the world like some petty vandal? Or do we seek to work with others, through reflection, and careful, respectful listening, to construct new knowledges? Nabokov’s father would believe the latter. And I certainly agree.