Sunday, February 19, 2012

Post-Pluralist Society, Birth Control and the Patterns of American Social and Political Life

The debate surrounding whether or not the Federal government can mandate coverage of birth control on insurance companies that service religious health care plans isn't exactly about women's rights or religious teachings per se. There is a deeper philosophical quandary. It is really about whether or not the state can enforce its conception of the right and the good upon its citizenry. Now, more than ever, I think we will start seeing a post-pluralist society emerge in which government leaders no longer show restraint in imposing what they feel is the right and the good.

What I am about to say may be alarmist. I'm very aware of that. However, I never thought I would hear a Presidential Candidate like Rick Santorum. Here's a Presidential Candidate running for office, and he thinks the presence of birth control threatens public safety. He thinks of this issue as a "policy issue." The backlash of the Catholic bishops or even their intellectual worldview (such as Feser's post here) represent a decisively poignant lashing out against American political liberalism to allow for private and reasonable conceptions of the good. In effect, the conservative political base is coming at Obama not simply as a partisan, but as a symbol of an entire ideology opposed to everything they believe in even when that is an oversimplification of significant proportion. It is not only the conservatives that are mustering these efforts; there is a certain dogmatism of the left emerging that will respond in kind. In each case, the divisions of American political parties have subsumed any chance of reasoned dialogue about these issues. They are only interested in asserting their ideological systems of belief. This has already had significant consequence in American life.

One consequence is that political regions of partisan support surface. If you are gay, you'll move to the San Francisco Bay area, or other metropolitan West coast regions. Utah will always be a safe haven for conservatives. Like will always beget like. This voluntary seclusion and growth in numbers indicates that the preference of the political culture has had an impact. If we were ever to experience Differences in a positive and constructive way such that the radical singularity of the Other should be part of our experience, such experiences are no longer possible (I'll leave it an open question if we ever truly did experience Differences in a productive way). With that possibility goes the forced socialization of differences necessary for toleration.

Following suit, our politics and media have grown insular. Conservatives have built their own channel -- FOX News -- through which they don't have to be challenged just as much as liberals have flocked to MSNBC. We have started to build patterns of reinforcing assertion of someone's identity in public spaces and spaces of information exchange guided naively along these partisan lines. Internet IP addresses register what type of media you read and as such, when you load up Yahoo News only certain stories will populate fitting your established worldview. We are no longer experiencing any cognitive and social dissonance in our political and social spaces. There is no common experience of Differences anymore. This goes without saying since the public space where we disclose ourselves is slowly shrinking away.

Now, perhaps we never truly did experience as much Difference as possible. Still, years ago, racial integrationists sought the need to expose others to Others. That was a hard won victory for many, and now the only experience of others lies in the cramming of cities at work or in public school systems. There are few public spaces left to all of us through which we become exposed to Difference. Many of those to whom we meet is a function of our position and class in society. My high school consisted of mainly White professional families. We had one African American female in our entire high school and she was adopted. University has been the only time where I have met many different people from all over the world. Outside university, however, I don't have any experiences as global, or as unique. And now, public universities are vying for public support in a climate that does not want to fund them and sustain their accessibility to a shrinking middle-class.

Again, you are wondering how we got here. Well, I've tried to show that a post-pluralist society is realization of how we've organized and arranged our social patterns in the world. This organized arrangement is symptomatic of a fundamental shift in our cultural milieu that no longer seeks to understand Difference. Instead, it has become enough to assert an ideology as a form of power over others. This suffuses both sides of the political spectrum to such an extent that it could've been the other way around. The Catholic Church or Catholic Congressmen could've mandated that secular institutions forbid birth control. In both examples, secularism or catholicism can form patterns so confident that they have access to objective moral knowledge about how culture and individuals ought to be that they close off the openness to Difference. In the end, such confidence takes off and becomes a form of ethical violence as Levinas has fully shown. More than that, when we think we have access to a proper conception about how society ought to be, we forget the humility moral knowledge really requires.

So how to proceed? First, we could reassert Rawls' political liberalism in light of these social patterns. If that idea takes hold, political institutions cannot use any comprehensive doctrine when offering public reasons for why they acted in a certain way. For Rawls, living in a democracy means that every action of the state and its institutions must be justifiable to all that live within it. Therefore, there must be a public reason as to why the state acts as it does. The only restriction to public reason is that the state abides by a principle of mutual respect which is something akin to Kant's respect of autonomy. Religions count as comprehensive doctrine, and therefore lie outside what can justify state action in a democracy. The problem is that religion is not going away any time soon and Western democracy did not become less religious.

Secondly, we could allow that religious reasons can meet the burden of public reason. Habermas pushed for something like this recently. I am equally dissatisfied with this answer since the language of public reason promotes an unyielding deontology about what we ought to or not do as a society that gets appropriated by ideologues. Perhaps, part of the problem lies exactly in the language used to address justification of policies.

Thirdly, I offer a different answer. It will not be as concise as Rawls. Instead, I think that we should conceive of state actions and our participation in the state as aiming toward a chief end. Sounds familiar? Pretty Aristotelian, huh?! Except the chief end is not a teleological abstraction to which everything conforms. More than that, the chief end is openness to the wholly other (and for the religious, this will mean a conception of God as wholly other). Flourishing can only happen if a state allows for the radical uniqueness of others coupled with a pattern of social organization that forces others to encounter Differences. Now, I don't know exactly how to do this, but among some of the options of the Greek world that inspires my speculation is the practice of taking our meals in a common area. More common areas and public spaces could organize events that draw us together. Festivals and a calendar of public events meant to celebrate not one singled out Difference, but Differences in the pluralistic sense might inspire conformity to the chief end of openness.

In the end, I do not want to hang the solution of birth control and proper health care coverage on the lofty idea of openness qua flourishing, yet I wanted to move past a debate that merely asserted a transgression of what is right of one group over another. Rights become asserted when one group finds itself injured in one way or another, even if there has never been a claim or right asserted in that particular way before. This boundless expansion of rights then makes the assertion of right superfluous. Instead, I think virtue ethic standpoint combined with Levinasian respect of the radical singularity of the Other might just be one solution to try. In addition, I have also argued that if we do nothing, the world is slowly becoming a post-pluralist society in which all identities assert their own difference not as a point of what we ought to respect following Levinas, but instead that the assertion of difference involves an ideology of power that subsumes difference into it.

No comments: