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Activism or Deliberation?

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Colin Bird

on 26 April 2017

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Transcript of Activism or Deliberation?

Activism or Deliberation?
Iris Marion Young

Young's basic thesis:

Deliberative democrats undervalue activism as a vehicle for democratic political action.

In one way, activism is quasi-deliberative, in that it is a form of communication, intended to raise issues, draw attention to things, make people think twice.

But, for Young, it differs from deliberation in that it refuses to play by supposed rules of constrained discussion. The inadequacy of the 'seminar' model of politics.
The altercation with Hillary captures Young's intended contrast between the 'activist' and the 'deliberator':


1. Hillary's response: 'Let's talk'; 'are you going to let me speak?' Young -- these are all deliberative impulses; but here they function as an attempt to silence, to usher away, to change the subject.

2. The protestor isn't interested in 'talk': she wants to disrupt the event, demand an apology, and embarrass Hillary, but to an intended effect -- to vividly draw attention to Hillary's alleged complicity in policies and attitudes that contribute to mass incarceration of the black population in the US. It matters that the protester is herself black.

3. The reaction of the audience: 'not appropriate'; 'rude'; 'trespasser' etc. Suggests that the 'etiquette' of political discussion tends to silence certain voices
Young offers at least four arguments about the limitations of political deliberation:

1. Reasoned argument is weak against structural inequalities of power

2. Involves too narrow an understanding of what it means to be ‘reasonable’ in politics: depiction of activists as ‘extremists’

3. Deliberation is often exclusive; the terms of entry into deliberation are not equal

4. Meaningful deliberation can proceed only on the basis of certain shared assumptions. Think of the way juries are disciplined by rules of evidence. These presupposed background frameworks protect problematic assumptions from critical scrutiny.

In taking this position, Young associates her activist with 'ideology critique' and 'Critical Theory'.

These terms have a specific technical meaning; they derive from a tradition of political theory that goes back to (at least) Marx (key pioneer was actually Rousseau in his Discourse on inequality -- see ch. 12 of my book).

'ideology' here doesn't mean what you think; not 'socialism' or 'conservatism' or 'liberalism'. Rather, 'ideology' for Young refers to frameworks for understanding one's political situation that are
deeply socially entrenched
hard to think outside because hegemonic
tend to rationalize the status quo
mystify actual social relations

e.g. :
Marx on capitalist ideology -- an ideology of 'justice', 'equality' and individual 'rights'. Conceals exploitation and obscures capitalist power structure
Feminists on 'public/private' or 'natural sex differences' -- an ideology of 'private life' beyond public scrutiny that claims to be just, natural, etc. But these ideas actually protect patriarchal social relations from scrutiny; these are socially constructed not natural; allow behavior that should be criticized to be indulged with impunity.

'Critical Theory' refers to the general attempt to help agents understand how their thinking is distorted by these 'ideological' illusions, in order to liberate them from them.

Marx: critical reflection 'enabl[es] the world to clarify its consciousness....[to] wak[e...] it from its dream about itself, ...[to] explain[...] to it the meaning of its own actions'

Horkheimer: 'The real social function of philosophy lies in its criticism of what is prevalent ... the chief aim of such criticism is to prevent mankind from losing itself in those ideas and activities which the existing organization of society instills into its members'.

Freudian psychoanalysis is an individualized version of this.

Brennan on the Duty not to Vote Badly

Citizens have a right to vote. But to say that one has a right to vote is not equivalent to saying that it is always right to exercise that right.

I have a right to refuse a vaccine -- but exercising that right is often dumb

I have a right to say offensive things -- but that doesn't make it right to do so.

Note that these kinds of cases differ from ones in which you have no right to do certain things. I don't merely exercise my rights poorly when I murder someone. I act without any right at all.

There is a difference, then, between
having a right to do something and then exercising it in a morally problematic way
having no right to do something in the first place.

Brennan: similarly, I have a right to vote badly, but a duty to not do so. This duty is not enforceable on Brennan's account, any more than the duty to avoid racist speech is enforceable given freedom of speech.

Voting badly = 'voting for X without sufficient reason' where X would be harmful, unjust etc. Brennan gives three archetypes:
1. voting on the basis of immoral beliefs (e.g. racism)
2. voting under ignorance
3. voting under various sorts of bias

Note that for Brennan, to be guilty of voting badly, citizens must be in a position to recognize:
1. the immorality of their beliefs
2. their ignorance
3. their biases

So, he's not discussing cases in which voters cannot recognize their immorality, ignorance or bias.

But he's also not saying that someone who refuses to acknowledge the immorality of racism (e.g. a white supremacist) is thereby absolved of acting wrongly. For the white supremacist should recognize the immorality of his beliefs, whether or not he does, and he should not vote.

General argument for not voting badly: a duty to avoid participating in collectively harmful activities. Comparable to the duty not to pollute the environment.

A duty to 'not be part of the problem'

Brennan's argument offers the democrat a response to Plato's Craft Analogy objection:

Plato's claim that the right to rule should be conditional on wisdom, expertise, etc.
But he
Plato's claim that democracy is only any good to the extent that it produces wise decisions.

To accommodate Plato's objection, Brennan suggests that healthy democracy needs both formal democratic procedures AND an ethos of voluntary civic restraint.
Questions for Brennan:

1. B advocates a duty to not vote badly, but not a duty to vote well. This strkes me as an unstable position.

2. Possibility that part of the value of democratic forms of representation consists in providing
about peoples' actual preferences (for good or ill)

3. There is something utopian about B's view: as he acknowledges, in practice, people won't generally admit their bias, ignorance and turpitude.
this gets to a deep question about democratic forms of life, one that Plato (I think) was the first to see:

democratic practices are valuable only if participants are properly oriented toward the good, wisdom, justice etc.

but people won't be so oriented if we leave them free to work their views out for themselves, as democratic societies tend to do (the 'invisible hand' theory of virtue is almost certainly

democratic political culture thus tends to erode the very ethos that it needs to suceed (current events seem a case in point)
Some questions for Young:

1. Why can't deliberative criticism be transgressive? Isn't questioning assumptions itself a deliberative act? Luther.

2. Activism works best when targeted at single-issues where it's hard to argue on the other side. If so, activism presupposes deliberatively strong positions. Suggests that activism and deliberation are more complementary than Young allows.

3. Critical theory is, or at least often has been, a highly elitist, intellectualist tradition. 'We' know better than you that you are laboring under ideological illusion. How democratic is this? Is activism always/usually about ideology critique?

4. What about regressive activism? Young seems to assume that activism is always guided by good, progressive, values. Why assume this?

5. The problem of righteous self-certainty in politics; activism arguably exacerbates it; deliberative dispositions might help loosen its grip.

Democracy needs ideology critique, a way to force people to challenge assumptions that are so widely accepted that few call them into question.

To break the hold of ideology, one needs activists to 'rupture' settled patterns of thinking, or so Young thinks.

Deliberative democracy, because it tends to hold assumptions in place, is too weak to do this by itself.
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