Thursday, June 28, 2007

So What is she really saying?

Those of you without a doctorate, or a long time away from the Academy, may have a hard time understanding these ¨Scholarspeak¨ book reviews of scholarship appearing on the website of the Carnegie Council - from their Journal of Ethics and International Affairs. It is as hard to translate this type of writing into the vernacular as it is to understand the "economist speak" of the papers of the World Bank.

I ask you to make an effort to decode the following reviews and see if you understand them.

I try to be an absorber of high-minded thought coming out of the Academy as well as the screams of the mobs carrying signs, a translator, perhaps, a boundary crosser. We live in an increasingly smaller world, one which holds the possibility of great acheivement or global distruction.

Are there some things on which we can, as human beings, agree ?

I wonder.

Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues, Catharine A. MacKinnon [Full Text]

June 1, 2007

Clare Chambers (reviewer)

In April 2006, Catharine MacKinnon was interviewed about her new book, Are Women Human?, for BBC Radio 4's "Woman's Hour." The presenter, Jenni Murray, had one main question that she repeated throughout the short interview to the exclusion of any discussion of MacKinnon's arguments: Wasn't the book's title simply too controversial to be taken seriously?

Though frustrating, Murray's unwillingness to engage with the arguments of Are Women Human? was strangely appropriate. A recurring theme of MacKinnon's book is that it is extremely difficult to get violence against women taken seriously. MacKinnon's fundamental claim is that the violence and abuse routinely inflicted on women by men is not treated with the same seriousness accorded to a human rights violation, or torture, or terrorism, or a war crime, or a crime against humanity, or an atrocity, despite resembling each of these things closely at least and precisely at most. Thus, MacKinnon asks "why the torture of women by men is not seen as torture" (p. 21); why violence against women within the borders of a state is not seen as a human rights violation; why the mass rape of Bosnian and Croatian women by Serbs is not seen as an act of genocide against those ethnic groups as such; why the mass rape of women in general in peacetime is not seen as an act of genocide against women as such; why, "women not being considered a people, there is as yet no international law against destroying the group women as such" (p. 230); why the terror imposed by the violence of male dominance is not seen as the sort of terrorism against which a government might see fit to wage war; why atrocities against women "do not count as war crimes unless a war among men is going on at the same time" (p. 261); and why, when approximately 3,000 women are killed by men in the United States each year, we refer to that state of affairs as "peacetime."

MacKinnon describes the extent and nature of violence against women in the context of the national and international legal frameworks that do a better or (more usually) worse job of countering it. Both the facts and the arguments are hard-hitting. MacKinnon's writing is astonishingly powerful, combining a compelling air of authority and outrage with a sense of despair at the enormity of women's domination by men. It is hard to disagree with her central thesis that much violence against women has the severity of a human rights violation. Moreover, MacKinnon provides a compelling critique of the doctrine that only states can violate international law, and that only transborder atrocities merit international intervention.

Are Women Human? contains philosophical discussion as well as applied political and legal argument. One such discussion concerns the concepts of universality and difference and engages with debates on multiculturalism. In the context of a critique of postmodernism, MacKinnon argues against both relativism and essentialism. Against relativism, she notes that many multicultural defences, or "defences of local differences," are in fact "often simply a defence of male power in its local guise" (p. 53). Criticizing these multicultural differences does not imply cultural imperialism, for sex equality has not been achieved in any known culture. As she puts it, "Feminism does not assume that ‘other' cultures are to be measured against the validity of their own, because feminism does not assume that any culture, including their own, is valid. How could we?" (p. 53). And yet, MacKinnon emphasizes, criticizing cultures from the universal standpoint of women's equality does not entail some form of essentialism. (The charge of essentialism, she claims, is really an accusation of racism in disguise.)

For MacKinnon, feminism cannot be essentialist because it is based on a rejection of the idea that "woman" is a presocial or biologically determined category. What it asserts, rather, is that despite women's diversity, "commonalities" remain (p. 53). MacKinnon thus directly repudiates multiculturalists who claim that equality requires group rights that entrench gender hierarchy, a move that places her (in this respect) alongside comprehensive liberal theorists such as Susan Moller Okin and Brian Barry. At the same time, she is emphatic in her criticisms of the conceptual underpinnings of liberal equality: based on the idea that equality requires sameness, she argues, liberal equality cannot deal with the fundamental "difference" of sex. Instead, equality must be understood as the absence of hierarchy, an understanding that necessarily requires making normative judgments about particular social structures and practices. Are Women Human? thus criticizes both sides of the multicultural debate: multiculturalists for failing to challenge sex domination, universalists for failing to challenge their own philosophical premises.

As a whole, the fact that the book is a collection of discrete pieces, many of which were created for specific audiences, is both a strength and a weakness. It is a strength if the book is read as a historical record of MacKinnon's engagement with various actual political and legal struggles. One can imagine MacKinnon's voice in the courtrooms, parliamentary committees, and conferences where many of the chapters originated. Were any of these audiences able to remain complacent after hearing her speak? Did any object, or defend themselves? Indeed, if the book is to be understood in this way, it would have been illuminating if some of the chapters were accompanied with a note on the responses of their audiences. For example, what did the Swedish parliamentary committee do when told, "The Swedish law of pornography, with respect, is the wrong law. . . . You have a law against sexual violence in pornography, and you are surrounded by sexual violence in pornography. Nothing is done about it" (p. 102)?

Reading the book in this way mitigates the problem that arises when the book is approached, instead, as a unified work: there is a considerable amount of repetition. Viewed as a complete work, the book would have benefited from being reedited as such, with unnecessary repetition removed, to help the reader identify each new argument as it is presented and give each its deserved attention.

These comments notwithstanding, Are Women Human? is a book that deserves to be widely read. It contains important empirical and legal analysis of particular conflicts, most notably what MacKinnon insists must be described as the Serbian genocide of the early 1990s. It develops MacKinnon's own feminist philosophy, building on the approach developed in her earlier works and demonstrating how feminism should respond to international issues. And it engages directly with contemporary debates about culture, global justice, human rights, international law, and the demands of equality. As such, it challenges those from a variety of disciplines to answer her question: "When will women be human? When?" (p. 43).

—Clare Chambers, University of Cambridge

Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, Amartya Sen
Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, Kwame Anthony Appiah [Full Text]

June 1, 2007

Michael Blake (reviewer)

These two books are the inaugural releases in Norton's Issues of Our Time series, but they are linked by much more than this fact. Each is a measured attack on the cultural separatism prevalent in many academic and policy circles. According to the cultural separatism thesis, cultures or nations are morally central groups in the world; membership in such groups is both ethically significant and explanatorily powerful; and the borders of cultural and national groups must be preserved against outside influence. This thesis is rejected by both Appiah and Sen, in subtly different ways. Each book, moreover, is extraordinarily personal. Appiah and Sen illustrate their theoretical points with reference to their own experiences and the experiences of their families. The books represent excellence in philosophical reasoning, but only philosophers whose relationship to these issues is more than simply academic could have produced these works.

Sen's argument focuses primarily on the ascription of identity. Individual membership in identity-creating groups such as culture—and, in many recent discussions, religion—is often taken by observers to have an explanatory significance. We tend to think we can know a great deal about a person's beliefs in politics and morality, for example, if we know their cultural background. Cultural activists, moreover, frequently insist that this ascription is normative, rather than simply descriptive; there is, on this account, a single proper way of being Muslim or Arab, and it has implications across all strands of a human life. This assumption is not simply inaccurate, writes Sen, but deadly; it insists upon a single form of identification, making all other forms of diversity sources of disagreement and potential violence. Sen defends, instead, a notion of "diverse diversities" (p. 13), by which we have a plurality of forms of identification, both within and between the large-scale cultural and religious markers we tend to emphasize. Being Muslim, on this account, should not be misinterpreted as a marker defining all aspects of human life. Muslim reactionaries, cultural separatists, and academics such as Samuel Huntington all come under fire for making this mistake of distorting human diversity through a false and damaging simplicity.

Appiah shares this concern for complexity in identification, but combines it with a more extensive account of how our moral duties might change when we encounter difference. The assumption of cultural separation, he argues, underlies both the easy, moral indifference of the cultural relativist and the arrogance of the imperialist. These two approaches to difference—making difference sacred, or imposing sameness through force—rest on both epistemic and moral mistakes. What is needed, Appiah suggests, is a serious attempt to learn how to speak to one another across difference, and much of his book is devoted to explaining both the difficulty and the necessity of this process. This fresh start, moreover, will have to teach us both how to speak and how to disagree across cultures. What emerges by the end of Appiah's book is a conviction that most of this process will happen without the help of philosophical reason. In the end, learning to live with difference is more an arational process of acclimatization—of getting used to one another—than a philosophical process of rational argumentation. We must ultimately seek acceptance and familiarity even with those whose beliefs we reject.

There is much in these books that is fascinating and refreshing, as they reject the separatist thesis frequently found in discussions of multicultural politics and cultural rights. Even more interesting for a student of international relations is the effect of such arguments upon the conventional analyses of international law and sovereignty. Many such analyses rely on a notion of coherent social nations, or ways of life, as the foundational units of international politics; we may think of John Rawls's concept of "peoples" in this context. The arguments of Sen and Appiah make the ascription of cultural separateness, and the normative valuation of cultural groupings, that much more complex. As such, their arguments represent a serious addition to the literature on international ethics. If the easy linkage between state self-determination and cultural survival is rejected, the precise contours of the rights and immunities of state agencies may require considerably more thought.

These books, however, might be better read as introducing a research agenda than a final series of conclusions. Both books function best when understood as attempts to rebut the assumptions of contemporary thinking. Their positive analyses, in contrast, remain somewhat underdeveloped. Sen, for example, does not develop the notion of "diverse diversities" to any significant degree. Identifying this phenomenon is useful, but we need more guidance in understanding just how diverse we want our diversities to be. Some ascriptive forms of identity will surely have some impact upon what other forms of identity might be adopted: identifying myself as a philosophical liberal, for example, will likely preclude me from also identifying with a theocratic religious order. Similarly, if I am both Catholic and homosexual, there will be—at the very least—an internal pressure and tension from holding these two identities. It would have been helpful for Sen to provide a more complex analysis of when and how we are right to take some forms of identity as having priority over other forms. The easy assumption that we can explain everything about ourselves with reference to a single strand of identity is surely wrong, as Sen notes. But the fact that some forms of identity determine or shape other forms of identity must also be acknowledged and understood; we cannot ignore the ways in which some of our identities do, and must, take priority over others. A more complex and accurate account of cultural identity, then, would neither always accept nor always reject the idea that some forms of identity will dominate others. Sen is quite right to reject the simple account on which some forms of identity are inevitably dominant; a more complex account of identity, however, would nonetheless accept that some forms of identity place pressure on other acceptable forms of identification. Sen paves the way for this more complex account, but it remains as yet undeveloped.

Appiah's argument, similarly, might stand more in need of amplification than amendment. His solution to the difficulties of speaking across difference is attractive; we should seek to become used to one another's foibles rather than solve all disagreements through force or argument. The difficulty, however, is that we still need some guidance about what sorts of differences we should seek to accommodate. To know everything is not always—or should not be, at any rate—to forgive much of anything. There are some sorts of difference whose evil we ought to keep sharp and focused in our minds; we would be wrong, for example, to lump political fascism together with religious difference, as an example of the sort of difference we should simply cease to find unusual. Appiah would agree, of course; he is no relativist. The difficulty in this case lies only in finding a principle suitable to determine what sorts of difference we ought to normalize. Appiah may be right that toleration across cultures will not be achieved by philosophy; surely, however, philosophy will have something useful to say about how to determine the sorts of toleration we ought and ought not to seek.

All this suggests only that the books ought to be taken as introducing a new direction in research rather than a settled position. Both books are admirable and valuable additions to our literature on global ethics in an age of cultural diversities.

—Michael Blake, University of Washington

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