Monthly Archives: June 2013

Personal and Political

It’s almost a cliche now to say the personal is the political. Like any concept that’s been around long enough, it’s been deconstructed and problematized a hundred different ways, and the original concept it was a response to – strict separation of personal life and political activism – no longer really exists. Thesis breeds antithesis becomes synthesis, and so on. However, I think saying “the personal is the political” is still useful as a general rule.

Kierkegaard wrote a lot about the connection between philosophy and life. Less vaguely, he believed that how a philosopher lived had direct bearing on the quality of his philosophy. If a philosopher denied all values, advocated universal violence and degradation, then left his office and went home to his loving family, you might want to doubt his commitment to his ideas. Basically, if an idea isn’t powerful enough to capture the person who came up with it, it’s probably not true or useful.

So if your politics aren’t directly affecting your personal life there’s an immediate problem. If you talk about smashing hierarchy and abuse your loved ones, there’s a problem. If you talk about feminism in your papers and make rape jokes with your buddies, there’s a problem. If you believe policy should reflect a steadfast commitment to human rights and a basic human kindness, this means nothing unless your life reflects the same. To echo a post of IOZ’s that caused a mighty brouhaha, if you are an anarchist who doesn’t commit – I mean properly commit – to dismantling the patriarchy along with all the other archys, your anarchism is of no value.

Also: if your politics can’t easily translate into your personal life – if it’s about locking those Other People up or protecting yourself from those Over There, and you don’t personally know any Other People – maybe it’s time to give it up.

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Cyclists as Oppressed Group, Again

Not so long ago I wrote a post suggesting some parallels between institutional oppression of women, people of colour, the disabled, etc, and the institutional annoyances that cyclists face on the road. My argument was that many experiences of oppressed groups are reproduced (in a much more minor way, obviously) in the experience of urban cyclists.  Commenting on a Toronto Sun article, MGK recently approached the point I was trying to make. Although he doesn’t explicitly make the parallel, he argues against the idea that cyclists and motorists both make mistakes and need to learn to co-operate – in other words, the idea that there is no relevant, fundamental power difference between cyclists and motorists. He finishes with this paragraph:

The problem is not cyclists. Yeah, there are a few asshole cyclists out there, but there’s a few assholes everywhere: most cyclists are generally law-abiding. The problem is drivers, because the root of the problem is that every driver wishes that they had the road to themselves, and unlike their relationship with other drivers, the relationship a driver has with a cyclist is inherently an imbalanced one.

Now this is undeniably close to the rhetoric of oppression. Replace ‘driver’ with ‘man’ and ‘cyclist’ with ‘woman’, or use cop/citizen if you’re an anarchist type, and you get a clear explanation for why the problem with violence against women isn’t women being provocative (or police brutality isn’t the fault of citizens being assholes). The cyclist/motorist dynamic is, to a small extent, one more facet of the awful diamond of intersectional politics (there’s a pun there somewhere).

If the parallel is easy to see reading MGK’s article, it’s glaring in the comments. You get the exact same terrible arguments that are used to justify sexism, racism, homophobia and so on: the “cyclists can be assholes too, so a pox on both their houses”, the “if you let cycling activists get enough victories, they’ll take over the entire city”, and more. One guy shared his story of cars waving him through intersections where they had right of way – which actually made things more dangerous for him, since it made their behaviour unpredictable – and got a bunch of responses saying “oh, you’re making a big deal out of nothing, why can’t you just go through when they let you go through”.

These arguments are all painfully familiar to anybody who’s spent any time at all reading about, say, feminism on the internet. “Men are jerks, sure, but women do terrible things too!” “If we give feminists their way we’ll be cutting guys’ dicks off if they look at a woman wrong!” And when women share their stories of dangerous or unpleasant moments, hordes of dudes swan up to tell them it’s no big deal, they’re making something out of nothing.

Most of all – and I know it makes me sound kind of obsessive, but I have to say it anyway – seeing this convinces me that the fundamental anarchist critique of hierarchy is right. If you’re an anarchist, you should be against coercion, which means you should be against power, which means you should, in situations like these, be primarily concerned with the power differentials at play between drivers and cyclists. You should see that you can’t divorce an individual instance from the general fabric of power, institutional and otherwise. Ideally (which, of course, is a word meaning ‘never in practice’) anarchists should be for cyclist rights as instinctively as they are for feminism, against racism, and against the State.

Revolution!

Why do they call it a revolution? Because it goes around and around and nothing changes, haha! No, seriously. If you’re holding out for the moment when your side rises up and seizes the reins of political power, you probably shouldn’t be. An anarchist critique of power starts with the idea that the particular system by which power is organised – whether socialist, capitalist, corporate, dictatorship – is largely irrelevant. It’s power that’s the problem. Any political system will evolve over time (often very quickly) to something like the modern State, although the flavour of hierarchy may differ.

I have a little sympathy but no time for anarchists who talk about throwing bombs, killing police, smashing shop-fronts. Firstly, killing police is the most ass-about manifestation of anarchism; taking somebody’s life is perhaps the most extreme act of power there is. While it may be morally justifiable to kill in self-defense, it’s never morally praiseworthy. Often police – even politicians! – are caught up in the vast totalizing system, same as us.

Secondly, it accomplishes nothing. I am not arguing that we ought to aim for slow political change or some such mirage. My stated position is that no political action accomplishes anything, and this is no exception – except that, like any violent action, it breeds spite among the victims and an ugly taste for violence in the perpetrator. It’s the lashing out of a frustrated child.

Thirdly, violence and vandalism runs counter to what anarchism should be. To my mind, anarchism is about co-operation, about valuing the particular and distrusting the general, about disengaging with the crass and ugly. Anarchism in political life is a dead-end. Well then, why not try it in your personal life? Don’t categorize people into types. Be aware of the power you have and try to exercise it over others as little as possible. Above all, strive for empathy and cut down any political principle that stands in the way. That’s a revolution, of sorts.

Sovereign Individual vs Defiant Self

Nietzsche’s Sovereign Individual is pretty cool. The best objection to that ideal, strangely enough, comes from Kierkegaard, who wrote before Nietzsche. Kierkegaard anticipated lots of Nietzsche’s ideas (in fact, my understanding of both is greatly indebted to Either Kierkegaard/Or Nietzsche: Moral Philosophy in a New Key by Tom P.S. Angier). Angier argues that Kierkegaard’s concept of the ‘defiant self’ is pretty much the same as Nietzsche’s Sovereign Individual, and that Kierkegaard’s criticisms are decisive.

For Kierkegaard, the defiant self is the person who rejects all claims to authority, value, and dependence on other humans. She shapes herself into the person she wants to be (sound familiar?) and decides for herself what kind of person that is. Since this process is largely internal, it’s hard to pick modern examples, but you might see Ayn Rand as a few steps along this road.

What’s the problem? Well, how is the defiant self going to decide what kind of person to become? Because every option is going to be conditional, Kierkegaard thinks that she’ll never be able to maintain a “true seriousness” about the project. Worse, she’ll experience a constant shifting of the goal – one moment she’ll want to be more like this, the next moment more like that – leading to a divided will. Instead of Nietzsche’s ideal of a confident, sure sovereign individual, Kierkegaard argues she’s more likely to end up in inner turmoil, confused and unsure about who she is or what she wants.

It gets worse still. The defiant self/sovereign individual will, in the end, have to seek help, since nobody can flourish by themselves. The natural pride involved in her attitude, though, will painfully delay this process – and when it eventually happens, it’ll be a crushing humiliation.

The only way to avoid this trap, Kierkegaard (and Angier) argued, is to aim for “wholeheartedness”. Try to “will one thing”, in Kierkegaard’s words, and let a clear, coherent goal guide you instead of a mess of disconnected impulses. What could serve as this goal? Kierkegaard proposed a theological conception of Love. In future posts, I’d like to explore if there are any other potential goals, and if not, whether Kierkegaard’s goal of Love necessarily requires theism.

Kierkegaard: Misogynist

Last month was Kierkegaard’s 200th birthday.

If you’re a fan of something it’s always tempting to explain away the negative aspects. Often we become twice as defensive in order to compensate for the worry this causes us. Listen to compassionate liberals defending the drug war or the drone policy; or compassionate conservatives working themselves into a fervor over the gays. I think it’s important to face up to the bad qualities of our heroes or ideologies.

With that in mind, Kierkegaard was a pretty bad misogynist. See this. He wasn’t as bad as Schopenhauer – seriously, who was? – but he wrote some terrible things about the role and capabilities of women. Yes, I know, he was a creature of his time; yes, I know, the oppressed nature of an oppressed group makes that group seem deserving of oppression to the very superficial glance; yes, I know, he wrote “The Woman Who Was a Sinner”. He still should have been better on this one.

The Sovereign Individual

In Nietzsche’s laminated trading card folder of ideal and non-ideal types, special attention is devoted to what he calls the Sovereign Individual: the person who decides what his own values are, who stretches his will out over his own life and molds himself into the kind of person he ought to be. The Sovereign Individual is the person who through sustained effort becomes “what he already is”. What should we make of this ideal?

According to Nietzsche, our ‘identity’, the ‘thing that wills’, is a fiction; when I say ‘I feel’, the ‘I’ denotes a myriad of competing urges and forces. According to this view, to exercise self-control is not to control your forces but for one (or a group) of the forces within you to dominate all the others. So the Sovereign Individual is the individual with no internal conflict – not because everything works harmoniously in his mind, but because there is a ruthless internal tyranny of a few forces over the rest.

This psychological model is surprisingly intuitive. We speak of ‘making bargains with ourselves’ in order to, say, go to work or spend an hour riding a bike instead of watching TV. When we ‘force ourselves’ to go for a bike ride, isn’t that just our desire to be fit and healthy wrestling down our desire to relax and avoid effort? It’s a little harder to accept Nietzsche’s idea that our feeling of having made a decision is not the cause but the result of this inner conflict, but I see no reason to disagree with Nietzsche on this point.

So how do we pick values that are not determined by the values of society? Well, we begin by thinking about which drives are conducive to our flourishing and which aren’t. This weakens the undesirable drives and helps the stronger ones dominate them. Nietzsche (roughly) calls the desirable drives ‘active’ drives and the undesirable ones ‘reactive’ drives. It’s in this sense that we “become what we are”: by letting the active part of us dominate the passive, we ideally shed our drab social-conformist skin and shine forth as the crazy diamond we all are underneath.

You might wonder how anybody can really decide what their own values are. Aren’t our values conditioned by the society we live in? Don’t we need some kind of value-system in order to choose which social values to discard and which to keep? And if we choose a set of values that are totally distinct from the values of society, will anybody be able to understand them as ‘values’ at all? Nietzsche has answers to this, but I don’t think they’re ultimately convincing.

Cycling Joins the Oppression Olympics

It occurs to me that riding a bike in any car-dominated area (any city in any Western country) is a snapshot into what it is like to live without privilege. For those of us lucky enough to be well-off white dudes, it is confronting to be honked at and cut off, to feel so much more vulnerable than the people protected by their metal shells, to be hit by car doors and yelled at as if it was our fault. There’s the impossible standards: ride too close to the traffic and you’re an irresponsible menace, ride close enough to the parked cars to get clipped by a door and you should have been sitting further out. There’s the institutional indifference: get killed in a car accident and often there won’t be an investigation, let alone anybody charged with manslaughter. There’s also the communities that form from this shared experience.

In a perfect world, cyclists would use this as a way to empathize with people who suffer from oppression, on a bike or not.