Robert Talisse On ‘Too Much Democracy’ And The Public-Private Distinction

Over at Aeon Magazine Robert Talisse worries that “our social lives” are being “tyrannised by democracy” because “choices about mundane matters…are all deeply tied to [our] political profile…social worlds are shaped by the travails of contemporary politics” and builds to the conclusion that “there is such a thing as too much democracy,” that “we must reserve space in our shared social lives for that which is not political.” Because the “saturation of civic life by democratic politics crowds out the fundamental bases for community and social cooperation….we must cultivate a…civic friendship,” by engaging “with each other on matters that are not political,” by talking with each other “about matters of substance that are not at all political.”

Roughly, let us not structure our personal lives and spheres by the political, by democratic politics, revolving around the expression and instantiation of political preferences; rather, let us let the political emerge from a set of personal micro-interactions, cultivating along the way, the ‘civic friendship’ that should underwrite a viable democracy. Talisse thus insists on reserving an exclusively personal space, free of politics, one from which the political—‘democracy’—would emerge; at least in this way, Talisse’s analysis reinforces an older public and private distinction. Here is the personal, and here is the political; the twain shall meet but on the terms dictated by the former; the latter is not permitted to ‘tyrannize’ the personal. (Incidentally, we might ask whether the problem that Talisse points to is specifically a problem of democracy or of any political system in which the personal is infected by the political?)

I agree with Talisse that the social world–as it is visible in his formulation–is structured by politics but I think we get a narrowly framed picture of what this structuring is like if we think of this only in terms of political preferences i.e., I’m picking and choosing my friends and family and acquaintances based on their and mine political preferences and tastes. For instance, my socially constructed race and gender, and my materially constructed class has a great deal to say about what my social spaces and thus, what my social interactions, are like. This is not a matter of my political preference; I am placed into certain social spaces by these attributes of mine, and those are determined by larger social materialities. Furthermore, I am susceptible and vulnerable to legal control in differential ways, depending on my race, class, and gender, resultant in a vector of social placement and comfort; this susceptibility is only partially determined by political preferences.

As these examples show, we certainly exercise many choices in structuring our social spaces but many of our spaces are structured for us; for instance, many school children in the US today grow up in a society that is far more sharply segregated than it was in the past. They have not chosen their schoolmates based on their preferences; their mates have been chosen for them. How free then is their educational attainment and their subsequent economic and physical placement in a particular city neighborhood?

So, I would suggest that while Talisse is right in pointing to the importance of the micro-personal interaction as a basis for larger politics and political formations, it is not clear to me that this suggestion will result in the kind of democracy-or-politics-free space desired. Those spaces of micro-personal interactions will be structured by class, by race, by gender: working class black folks are going to spend, in the US, most of their personal time with other working-class black folks; and middle-class white women are going to spend their personal time with folks very much like them. Now, it is a consequence of materialist (or feminist or critical race) analysis that these kinds of class (or gender or race) placements do determine political preferences in interesting and significant ways, so in fact, it turns that even these personal spaces are politically structured. Indeed, it is not quite clear whether even in the domains of the romantic or sexual such structuring can be avoided. The activities that Talisse suggests could be made the basis of a civic friendship–mundane social activities all of them–are quite plausibly viewed as being infected thus. That is as it should be if we understand politics as a community wide movement towards a common goal, a project of inherent plurality that implicates even the minor personal interactions.  The personal is indeed political.

Letting The Feminists Know What Time It Is

A couple of years ago, in a post commenting on Virginia Held‘s Sprague and Taylor Lecture at Brooklyn College, I wrote:

My association with her goes back some twenty years, when I first began my graduate studies in philosophy as a non-matriculate student at the CUNY Graduate Center [in the fall of 1992]. My first class was ‘Social and Political Philosophy,’ taught by Professor Held. [During our first class meeting] on her reading list, I saw four unfamiliar names: Carole Pateman, Susan Okin, Catherine MacKinnon and Patricia Smith. Who were these, I wondered, and what did they have to do with the ‘public-private distinction’ (the subtitle Virginia had added to ‘Social and Political Philosophy’)? As we were introduced to the syllabus, Professor Held skillfully handled some questions: Why were these readings on the list? Why not the usual suspects? I was impressed, of course, by her deft location of feminist philosophy in our canon and its importance in exploring the public-private distinction, but I was even more impressed by the grace and firmness that she displayed in dealing with contentious student interlocutors.

I want to add a little more detail to this story–as well as a little follow-up; your mileage may vary with regards to your assessment of the topicality or relevance of these embellishments.

That evening, during our first class meeting, there were some twenty students in class. Most were men, a few were women. One male professor from Israel was sitting in on the class. After Virginia handed out the syllabus, the questioning began. It was unrelentingly querulous and hostile, outraged by the outlier syllabus we had just been handed. No Hobbes? The horror! So many feminists? Why? I was taken aback by the edgy conversation, the in-your-face style the male graduate students adopted in confrontation with Virginia. The visiting academic, for his part, did his bit, by adding his two skeptical, teetering-on-the-edge-of-sneering cents: Surely, this material was more suited for a feminist philosophy class?

As I noted above, Virginia handled these responses with grace and tact and intellectual aplomb. (For instance, she had paired John Locke and Carole Pateman for good reason.) My respect for her grew. And I, so used to being marginalized in conversational spaces, someone who had read Native Son only a year before, when I read Marx and feminism a little later in the semester, came to realize where I could find solidarity.

But I digress.

News of this new ‘radical’ syllabus was not slow in spreading; I heard many graduate students express the verbal equivalent of the modern SMH: fucking feminists, they’re really out of control; imagine, putting all these out-there readings on the reading list of a ‘Core’ class!

A semester later, Virginia was teaching a class that I had not registered for, but in which some of my friends were enrolled.  All too soon, news of a delightful incident spread. A male graduate student–a good friend of mine, indeed, perhaps, my best friend in graduate school–had given Virginia her comeuppance. Apparently, she had assigned one of her papers as reading. During class discussion, while discussing its claims about the displacement of emotion or empathy in moral reasoning, my friend–without having done the reading and not knowing who the author was–had jumped into the fray and described her paper as ‘an ignorant parody of Western philosophy.’ Snickering in class; backslapping and applause later.

A few days later, while drinking beers with my friend in his apartment, I asked him if he knew he had become such an anti-feminist icon, the brave defender of the right of all to study philosophy in peace, without the ignorant provocations of feminist philosophers constantly badgering them.  To his eternal credit, my friend was in turns alarmed and then shame-faced; he did not desire such a status; he had fancied himself an enlightened progressive. (He was, and is.) But that verbal style, that cut-and-thrust, that parry, that jab and hook, perhaps they were all just a little too deeply ingrained. We talked a bit more, a little deeper into the night, before turning in. A semester or so later, when female graduate students in our department began to revitalize student government, bringing some of their concerns to the fore, he was deeply involved with their work.

That story had a ‘happy’ ending.  But elsewhere, I don’t think so.