Communitarianism, Writ Large

Ordinary Philosophy

I listened to Bill Moyers’ discussion with Michelle Alexander recently, about her book The New Jim Crow and her activism against the over-incarceration of black people here in the US. Something she said really struck me, as it relates to a problem I’ve been mulling over for some time. She said:

I realize that as well-intentioned as all that work was, it was leading me to a place of relatively narrow thinking… If I care about a young man serving, you know, 25 years to life for a minor drug crime… If I care about him and care about his humanity, ought I not also care equally about a young woman who’s facing deportation back to a country she hardly knows and had lived in only as a child and can barely speak the language? And ought I not be as equally concerned about her fate as well? Ought…

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Our Kids Don’t Want Our Legacy of Bigotry, Thank You Very Much

Atticus Finch defends Tom Robinson from false rape charges in To Kill a Mockingbird

I just finished reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. It made me good and mad all over again.

I had been reading it a week or so ago when I came across a Facebook post of a young man (I’d guess about 15 years old) who started making videos, on his cell phone, of salespeople following him around in stores. You can make a pretty good guess what color his skin is. In a temper, I made a comment on that post, perhaps an incautious one, in that it could have been interpreted as too broadly accusatory. I called out anyone who was reading it, who might be engaged in that sort of behavior, to just stop it!

The thing is, I could be a target of my own comments. Even though I don’t remember ever following anyone around a store because of their skin color, I know my thoughts and actions are sometimes influenced by unjustly negative biases too, and I’ve caught myself, from time to time, automatically having low expectations of people, based on their appearance, before I’ve spoken with them or had a chance even to observe how they actually behave.

But that makes me mad too. I remember when I was very small, when I first became aware of (often subtly) bigoted comments and attitudes, in some of the grown-ups around me, be it towards people of another race, religion, sex, or sexuality. There was a black family next door, for example, and we played and chatted with those kids blissfully unaware of race issues. Over time, I realized that there was some sort of divide, some awkwardness, between ‘my’ people and ‘their’ people. I won’t say who, but I have quite a few relatives and family friends who are quite bigoted, and many more who are but less so. It made me uncomfortable, and the way the adults answered my questions often sounded dishonest, and were unsatisfying. That may be why, when I was in sixth and seventh grade especially, I was obsessed with the civil rights movement and the whole issues of American racism. I’m sure I checked out every single book in our school library on the subject, and I remember when I was assigned to read ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ a few years later, I had already read it several times. It’s still one of my favorite books.

So why am I mad at other people when I, too, catch myself in biased thinking? I’m mad on behalf of myself and every single other young person who inherited that unwanted baggage from each previous generation. And I’m willing to bet that, all things being equal, those adults who passed on those bigoted attitudes wouldn’t have chosen to inherit them either, since they are good in other ways.

Although I’m so conscious of that bias that creeps in, I’ll often adopt an exaggeratedly non-bigoted attitude (even if a person of color is behaving suspiciously or badly, I’ll sometimes pretend they’re not, for example), and for all of us who feel a little bigoted against our own wills and fight against it, young people pick up on subtle cues with astonishing insight. They pick up on those awkwardnesses, those little changes in the way you hold yourself, in the way you think and speak, in the presence of different people, and they all too often internalize it, adopting those attitudes themselves over time, even becoming more racist themselves in an attempt to justify those adopted instincts.

I feel that for every one of these kids who inherit racism, their innocence has been violated: not the kind of innocence that, I think, is often just idealized ignorance (like that regarding sex), but the good kind, where people are just people and they’re all equal candidates for companions and playmates. Little kids treat each other more or less the same when it comes to color, once they’ve asked those funny getting-to-know-you questions that, to adult ears, sound racist, though they reflect only honest curiosity (hence the lack of self-consciousness). The racial divide happen later, when the awkwardness creeps in, as you grow and realize that your very thoughts have become tainted with the quality of injustice that is bigotry. In these subtle little ways, people pass on those old nasty habits of thought and behavior, robbing the next generation of that kind of inner peace that justice brings, and of so many opportunities to have a wider circle of friends, companions, and allies.

That’s how I remember it happening.

Going back to the teen and his cell phone videos: while I felt defensive on his behalf, I was also disturbed that he called one of the women following him around ‘bitch’. Then I felt doubly sorry about how this kid is being betrayed: not only are adults around him behaving badly in treating him preemptively, and therefore unjustly, as a criminal, but he’s been inculcated with at least some degree of sexism already, in that he’s comfortable with calling women ‘bitch’. An epithet on his part would be warranted, I grant, but ‘bitch’? That’s as sexist as those women following him are racist.

In every way, as with the one before, and those before that, the older generation is letting this kid down, as we do all other kids we’re subjecting to our bad example.

But I’m hopeful. I think the internet, even as it’s making our kids more sophisticated and worldly-wise than we might be comfortable with, are also bringing kids in constant contact with others of all races and cultural backgrounds, and they’re communicating freely with them clear of adult interference. They’re learning that others, whose bodily appearance may be different, have the same sort of thoughts and emotions that they do, just as we did on the playground. Now, however, the adults are not present to infuse those interactions with their racism, purposefully or not. Mr. Barack Obama was right, when he observed of his daughters and their friends ‘…when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are. They’re better than we were on those issues.’

Kids these days: they’re becoming cosmopolitan, in spite of all of those adults around them who justify their own bigotry by trying, unconsciously or not, to pass it on to their kids. Fortunately for the kids, I don’t think that’ll work this time around.


Communitarianism, Writ Large

I listened to Bill Moyers’ discussion with Michelle Alexander recently, about her book The New Jim Crow and her activism against the over-incarceration of black people here in the US. Something she said really struck me, as it relates to a problem I’ve been mulling over for some time. She said:

I realize that as well-intentioned as all that work was, it was leading me to a place of relatively narrow thinking… If I care about a young man serving, you know, 25 years to life for a minor drug crime… If I care about him and care about his humanity, ought I not also care equally about a young woman who’s facing deportation back to a country she hardly knows and had lived in only as a child and can barely speak the language? And ought I not be as equally concerned about her fate as well? Ought I not be equally concerned about a family whose loved ones were just killed by drones in Afghanistan? Ought I not care equally for all? And that really was Dr. King’s insistence at the end of his life. That we ought to care about the Vietnamese as much as we care and love our people at home.’

Alexander’s reflection on her own work illustrates our need not only to grow more expansive in our thinking in order to achieve a more just society not just locally, but globally: we need to witness and internalize the sufferings faced by other human beings who are not like us in appearance and culture, so that our instincts for empathy and for justice expand as well. 

The problems associated with the organization and implementation of an ordered society is the central topic of political philosophy; the problems associated with making societies just is the concern of ethical philosophy. Two philosophers whose work I especially admire in these fields are John Rawls and Michael Sandel. They are both concerned with justice, how to recognize a just society, and how we select the criteria for ethical decision-making. (I’m also a fan of Sandel’s because he’s engaged in a cause that’s dear to my heart: the great project of philosophy is not, and should not be, confined to academia. With his freely accessible lectures and discussions, and his popular philosophy books, he is among those reintroducing philosophy to the public square. Philosophy originated in the public square, after all, and as it addresses the concerns of the whole of humanity, then it should be a concern of, and the conversation should be accessible to, the whole of humanity as well.)

Yet Rawls and Sandel are at odds in some key ways. Among other things, Rawls’ theory of justice is classically liberal, in the tradition of John Locke, and focused on universalizability: a just system is one that must be applicable to all human societies, in all times and places. Sandel focuses more on the importance of community and tradition in matters of justice, and the answers are found more in solutions to ethical dilemmas based on particular society’s evolved norms. Rawl’s famous ‘veil of ignorance’ is his method for discerning whether or not a society is just: if each and every person were to be randomly assigned a role in society and had no way to know ahead of time who they would be (woman, man, CEO, employee, black, white, rich, poor, etc), and knowing this, they had to design a social arrangement, what would they all agree on? Then, we can look at how that veil-of-ignorance social design compares with an actual society to help us assess how just it is, and in turn, help us create s social system that will benefit everyone as much as possible. Seems a method that should obtain pretty fair, democratic results, right? But for Sandel, the veil of ignorance seems incoherent even as a mere thought experiment, since morals originate in, or emerge from, particular societies. Therefore, what is just is derived from how actual societies work, how they’ve grown and evolved to solve their own sets of problems, and cannot be derived from hypotheticals. So Rawls’ and Sandel’s ideas seem, on the face of it, irreconcilable. Who’s right?

Sandel’s views are generally described as communitarian, though he’s not entirely comfortable that characterization in that it can go too far in allowing community to trump the individual in all things moral. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘…communitarians argued that the standards of justice must be found in forms of life and traditions of particular societies and hence can vary from context to context’. In other words, communitarianism is the philosophy that ethics have more to do with particular societal morals and traditions, so the claim that there can be a universal definition of justice, such as Rawls’, is dubious at best.

When it comes to explaining how cultural traditions evolve to make a society more just, communitarianism has something to offer. For example, it’s among America’s most self-identifiable traditional ideals that individual liberty is of highest value and should be promoted as long as the freely chosen actions of one person don’t infringe on the freedom of another. The ideal of individual liberty has long roots in American society, and evolved and expanded over time through political upheavals, case law, and interpersonal disputes. But when we consider the traditional American ideal of individual liberty (by no means unique to America, of course) and compare it to our social history, it’s clear that it’s not no simple: it’s also been a tradition in the US to enslave other people. When that particular tradition was slowly, painfully overturned, there were many other ways that people, legally or illegally but commonly practiced, infringed on the freedoms of others: by denying women the vote, imposing Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, segregating the military, preventing workers from forming unions, and so on.

So a communitarian could argue that while the moral ideal of freedom is traditional in the US, it’s the broader implementation of it that took a long time as traditional practices caught up.

But how about societies that don’t have traditions of individual freedom, who believe there are some classes of people that should have all the power and wealth, and that it’s proper and right that others live in impoverishment and misery, lacking rights of citizenship, for their entire lives? Such is the caste system of India, for example, or the traditionally influential political philosophy of Aristotle which holds that there ‘natural’ slaves. Are we, then, not to be concerned that people of those cultures are suffering from injustice, if they belong to a community with different traditional views of justice? After all, according to the caste system, and to Aristotle and those communities that hold like views, it is just that certain people are slaves and certain people are not, that some people have power and some do not, that some live in wealth and comfort and others in misery, because all of this is justified by their society’s traditional concept of human nature.

Many people, myself included, have the same problem with communitarianism as I am sure Michelle Alexander does, given her quote which opens this essay: why should our sense of empathy, of moral obligation, be limited to the concerns and traditions of our own communities? That may have been prudent, even necessary, for our ancient ancestors, when human groups became large enough to need to compete for resources, but didn’t have the sophistication or technology to facilitate cooperation on such a large scale.

But now, our situation is very different: people’s ideas and actions, thanks to advanced technologies in communication, production, and travel, can have worldwide consequences, for ill and for good. We have access to centuries of the best products of human thought from disparate traditions all over the world, which are gradually coming to a consensus on some key issues in ethics and politics: the value of individual liberty, the benefits of equality, the necessity of having and fulfilling civic duties, and how to recognize a just society, for example.We have access to centuries of historical evidence which demonstrate the benefits of ever-more widespread cooperation, and the ineffectiveness of violent conflict, so that the immense suffering caused by war ends up wasted and unnecessary. And finally, now that people spend a lot of time ‘face-to-face’ with others from all over the world via computer, we feel a sense of real global community. Familiarity with people of different habits, different appearances, and different interests removes our sense of discomfort, and breeds not contempt, but empathy, compassion, and friendliness.

So perhaps the conflict between communitarian and modern liberal accounts of what constitutes a just society will lessen over time. After all, communitarianism must contain within it the idea that traditions change, grow, and evolve, since there have always been so many different traditions with mutually exclusive ethical codes. (I, too, think that morality is not fixed and eternal; rather, it’s a product of evolving, social, cooperative creatures.) And if the world’s communities are merging into one moral community, than the basic ideas of communitarianism will harmonize ever more with the universalizable ethical goals of liberal thought. While communitarians and liberals might still argue over the origins(s) of morals (tradition? reason? emotions?), our conception of justice, our ethical systems and the political institutions with which we realize them (governments, laws, and so on) will look more and more alike all over the world.

Listen to the podcast version here or subscribe on iTunes

~ Also published at Darrow, forum for ideas and creative commons webzine

~ Re-edited slightly in Feb/Mar 2016


Sources and inspiration:

Alexander, Michelle. ‘Incarceration Nation’. Interview with Bill Moyers, December 20, 2013.

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. 2012. New York: New Press Books.

Anderson, Elizabeth. ‘Tom Paine and the Ironies of Social Democracy‘, University of Chicago Law School Dewey Lecture 2012

Bell, Daniel. ‘Communitarianism‘, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Sandel, Michael. Various works and lectures, including his books What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets and Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?

Schneider, Greig and Egon Zehnder, Boston, and Ulrike Krause. ‘Interview with political philosopher Michael J. Sandel’, The Focus magazine.