A place for new ideas to settle.

06 May 2014

Justice requires closeness. If that's a bit uncomfortable, deal with it!

It's time again for some musings on social justice, culture, and the culture wars. Where did we leave off...

Oh, right. I saw and tried to sketch a parallel between 'privilege,' as described in Peggy McIntosh's "White Privilege: The Invisible Knapsack," and 'cultural literacy,' as described in E. D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. I didn't have the latter book with me at the time of writing those posts, so for full comparison, here you go:

White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.
A researcher goes to Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts... [pretending] to be a native. He says to passers-by, "How do you get to Central Square?" The passers-by, thinking they are addressing a fellow Bostonian... [offer] a few words like "First stop on the subway."

The next day the researcher... presents himself as a tourist, obviously unfamiliar with the city. "I'm from out of town," he says. "Can you tell me how to get to Central Square?" This time... answers are much longer and more rudimentary.
So in this case the 'invisible knapsack' of privilege allows a person to pass as a native... of what you might wonder, if the correspondence is true?

The elite. The ruling class of society. That's the first division.

But there are others. Ethnic subcultures, historically (because of unjust laws) and currently (because of unjust legacies of those laws) have been excluded from a broader mainstream. Political factions have separated and radicalized since the 1960s, mutually excommunicating each other. There's a loss of communication because these disparate groups have lost a common set of references to glue their language together. So argues Hirsch.

As I pointed out in another blog post (via a paper referencing Hirsch) this can only serve to entrench the elite, who are mostly homogenous and therefore share a common culture.

Conversely, a diverse public space generates a dynamic, robust, and flexible society. This is, I think, the greatest reason to desire diverse public spaces, beyond issues of personal representation—though these are certainly compelling! And look: even if you personally aren't interested in public discourse and so on, you should be invested in preventing a backsliding towards oligarchy. History shows that stratified societies are Bad Things for all but a very few, and also that elites tend to want to continue accumulating wealth and power. This creates an inevitable pressure to go back to the old model. But the diverse, open society has accomplished so much! We shouldn't want to give up on it just yet.

Unfortunately, our public sphere is a bit abused. Recently I finished Michael J. Sandel's Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? It's great; his course at Harvard has a free online video series, too. Towards the end of the book, Sandel powerfully illustrates what happens when we abandon diversity in public life, particularly with respect to the intermingling of classes:
Too great a gap between rich and poor undermines the solidarity that democratic citizenship requires. Here’s how: As inequality deepens, rich and poor live increasingly separate lives. The affluent send their children to private schools (or to public schools in wealthy suburbs), leaving urban public schools to the children of families who have no alternative. A similar trend leads to the secession by the privileged from other public institutions and facilities. Private health clubs replace municipal recreation centers and swimming pools. Upscale residential communities [or in this case, merely middle-class ones] hire private security guards and rely less on public police protection. A second or third car removes the need to rely on public transportation. And so on. The affluent secede from public places and services, leaving them to those who can’t afford anything else. [Link-citations mine.]

Separation should make us, as citizens of a pluralistic open society, feel anxious. But it seems that separation and seclusion is a common strategy of late. From libertarian hackers who want to hide in the shadows of mythical super-encryption, to academic departments who would rather avoid debate—and ironically sow the seeds of even more divisive and vicious "debate" (more of a shouting match, in reality) when it does happen—we seem to eagerly avoid conflict, or approach it unseriously when we can't avoid it.

Is it just me, or is this a kind of intellectual and philosophical cowardice?

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