“Dialogue” beyond Liberal Illusions: from a-Political Surrender to a Hermeneutics of Resistance

Liberals love dialogue. They think that if we just sit down together over tea and coffee, and talk out our divergent needs and interests, that we’ll all bend and compromise to the point where any conflicts are resolved, and we can all just get along.

And they aren’t entirely wrong. In many situations, especially personal situations, even engaging in dialogue is a sort of opening up to others, allowing ourselves to be affected by the needs of others. In dialogues where the implicit rule is to not come off as a jerk, the mere exchange of perspectives can be enough to motivate change.

The key quality of a successful dialogue is that the exchange of perspectives between the parties have a reflexive character. What I mean is that in the dialogue the position of each of the parties bend, or flex, in re-lation to each other. The “re” is both recognition and re-peting. This relation is an integration, a crossing, a crux. Mutually affective, but not in a material or mechanistic sense – after all we are human, cognitive, understanding beings. In the reflexive dialogue our understanding works on our interest and our interest on our understanding, and we engage in a mutual becoming which facilitates new forms of life, new ethical postulates, new I’s and We’s. It is essential is that these transformations are both individually and mutually willed, or at least accepted consensually so that we can imagine transitioning to a point where we do will the compromises. But what is most crucial is that between the parties, a higher and more considered intelligence emerges – we might call it an inter-subjective comprehension of the situation as a whole. If you want to call this a metaphor, that’s fine, but it’s a metaphor for the active role that the relation, rather than the individual parties themselves, play in transforming the interpretation of the situation and therefore the situation itself.

But as was clear from the introduction, in my view the whole liberal project is a little naive. Naive because where there is a need for dialogue, there is often a power imbalance – which itself might a reason why grievances emerged. Asking people to dialogue in a situation where one party has more power than the other is to presume a false equivalency between unequal parties. Even if the stated goal is to overcome the injustices on the table, the effective goal is to normalize the status quo, and to get the weaker parties to accept their oppression as the condition of moderating it. More often than we would like to admit, slight improvements in their situation are offered as the payoff for peacefully acquiescing to the order in which the subordinate group is structurally under-privileged.

From the perspective of dialogue as reflexivity, we can state more precisely what is wrong with dialogue across large imbalances of power. Reflexion is self critique, and mutual critique, but most importantly it is allowing the perspectives of others to affect your own perception of your own needs. But if you are much more powerful than the other you are claiming to “dialogue” with, you don’t need to do this, you don’t need to change your own view of yourself – you can simply make an offer and then say that the cost of not accepting the offer is you will continue to enforce the status quo with your superior force. This is why accepting the status quo is a precondition for dialogue with rebel groups, even when accepting the status quo means accepting the superiority of the stronger party. This can not be called dialogue, it should rather be called discussions regarding the terms of surrender.

In order for dialogue to take place, there must be some equivalency between the parties in their experience of precarity. If your life is in no way precarious, then you have no reason to expose yourself to the possible transformative effects of a genuinely reflexive interchange with another. In inter personal drama, the mutual precarity of losing friends in common, or simply appearing to be a jerk, might be enough to drive both parties into a dialogue and genuine compromise.  However, in dialogues between representatives of groups, the stronger party can only be forced into dialogue if the conflict creates a precarity which is unsustainable for its own members. Thus we should be highly suspicious when governments say they “will not negotiate with terrorists” – because in fact governments can only negotiate with groups which create a precarious situation for their own citizens. A government declaring that it will refuse to negotiate so long as the precariousness situation caused by the attacks is maintained, is effectively declaring that for the sake of avoiding a dialogue with the rebels it is willing to sacrifice whatever human lives that might be lost in the military campaign to wipe out all of the rebel forces, to the point where their ranks are so weakened that they can no longer resist the status quo and will instead sign terms of surrender, or simply return quietly to their unrecognized subordinate position.

Rather than thinking about force and dialogue as opposed to each other, we should see how they work together. Force can prevent the possibility of genuine dialogue, but force that restores a balance of force can restore this possibility. Only precarious lives can dialogue, and in situations where force makes some lives precarious white protecting others, a countervailing force is one of the things that can restore equivalency.

Of course, on the other hand, precarious situations can drive people into recalcitrance, especially if they think they can appeal to their ability to mobilize enough force to blot out the source of their precarity. The anguish of fear is a prime breeding ground for fascism, for tribalist thinking, for racism, sexism, an idealization of the “golden age”, and all forms of cultural inertia. A complete account of the dynamics of reflexive dialogue across different situations of force would require unpacking this tendency, and distinguishing more closely what forms of precarity motivate entry into reflexive dialogue, compared to which tend towards greater and more self-destructive appeals to might-as-right. It is, however, possible that the difference between these reactions is not a matter of external factors, but the internal decision and freedom of the members of the society under pressure.

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Jian Ghomeshi and the Dangerous spectre of “Authentic Feelings”

On May 6th in Toronto, Jian Ghomeshi hosted an event honouring Morgan Freeman in which he received a cultural prize from Hebrew University. Because such events wash Israel’s image, and because Hebrew U colonizes palestinian land in East Jerusalem, PACBI (Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) asked both Freeman and Ghomeshi to withdraw from the event. There has been a concerted social media campaign attempting to pressure the figures to not participate in this event, which is a normalization of Israel’s apartheid practices in East Jerusalem. To quote in part the letter sent by PACBI to Jian and Morgan Freeman, 

The intention of the award is to honor your work in ‘combating racism and promoting knowledge and education worldwide.’ Given that Israel practices forms of racism through its system of colonialism, occupation and apartheid, and violates the rights of Palestinians to education and life, it is cynical, and nothing short of a dishonor to your lifelong achievements to be accepting an award from a group that is in deep support of an Israeli University complicit in Israel’s systematic violations of human rights and international law.

 

The Hebrew University is specifically implicated in serious violations in a number of ways. The University illegally acquired a significant portion of the land on which its Mount Scopus campus and dormitories are built. On 1 September 1968, about one year after Israel’s military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, the Israeli authorities confiscated 3345 dunums of Palestinian land. Part of this land was then used to build the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University.

On Monday, Jian responded to the concerns:

In simple terms, this event is not political for me. I am not doing this as a product of political affiliation or to make a statement. I am doing this to honour a great man and to advance dialogue around global education. That is what I signed on for.

Jian’s reference to his own internal motivations as a response to the claim that his event legitimates and normalizes the daily crimes against the Palestinians satisfies a little less than half of those who responded by commenting on the post (it was put up on Facebook). What is interesting about the comments is that not one of them is explicitly pro-Israeli, those who Jian has convinced agree with the non-political nature of the event, and applaud him for sticking to his convictions in the face of criticism. They perceive in Jian an authenticity for sticking to his beliefs.

What is strange about all this is that normally we applaud others for sticking to their beliefs when they are challenged because we agree with their beliefs. But Jian’s beliefs here are not self-understood or represented as political, so instead of a political conflict between two sides we have a conflict between one side that denies its political nature, and another side that declares the political implications of the event.

This is special because while we are used to politics presenting itself as a-political, I can’t think of many examples where the a-political represents itself as a-political and becomes a politics of anti-politics. To be fair to Jian, he is not against ever being political, rather he is arguing for a suspension of politics. In the case of participating in the Hebrew U event, his justification is the assertion that there “will not be an easy resolution soon” to what is “a longstanding political debate”, and that he “will speak out when [he believes] the timing is appropriate”.

So, Jian, when will the timing be appropriate?

Perhaps we can take a clue from his reference to Margret Atwood, which appears at the end of his piece. After all, he said “She articulates what is in my heart…” However, upon opening the piece, we find that Atwood is making a distinction between a cultural prize that comes from a private Israeli foundation, and a prize that would come from the Israeli state or a state university:

the Dan David Prize is a cultural item It is not, as has been erroneously stated, an “Israeli” prize from the State of Israel, nor is it a prize “from Tel Aviv University,” but one founded and funded by an individual and his foundation, just as the Griffin Prizes in Canada are. To boycott an individual simply because of the country he or she lives in would set a very dangerous precedent.

Margret Atwood’s distinction between the boycott of Institutions and individuals is not a hack job, in fact, it echos PACBI’s own language on the boycott of individuals:

In its 2005 BDS Call, Palestinian civil society has called for a boycott of Israel, its complicit institutions, international corporations that sustain its occupation, colonization and apartheid, and official representatives of the state of Israel and its complicit institutions. BDS does not call for a boycott of individuals because she or he happens to be Israeli or because they express certain views.

Jian has no right to use Atwood’s piece to defend his own complicity in Apartheid. Atwood argues against cultural boycotts, but at least she argues rather than appealing to unstructured inner motivation. An argument can be responded to, can be part of a reflexive process of mutual growth and understanding. But a statement that culture is not political is not an argument, and thus what is disturbing about Jian’s remarks is not simply that he choses to stand on the right side of history, but that he chooses not to stand at all but simply hunch and shrug his shoulders, appealing to his own feelings and ignoring those who believe that when it comes to speaking out against human rights violations, there is no need to wait until “the timing is appropriate”.

When I’m sick all I can think about is homelessness

For the last few days of my trip, I’ve been feeling quite sick. I’m not sure whether it’s a hangover, allergies, a cold, or a combination of all three. The sun makes me feel sick, the damp makes me feel sick. However, I am very lucky – I’m staying with a friend, have a room of my own, and have access to healthy food, clean water, and warmth.

Many are not so lucky. The film Streets of Plenty reveals how homelessness can cause people to become ill and prevent their bodies from recovering, creating a vicious cycle which is incredibly damaging to people’s health. Shelters may be warm, but the huge rooms full of beds are an ideal place for diseases to spread, and you probably won’t be able to sleep because at least one person will be up coughing all night. Outside may be quieter, but unless it is warm the cold makes it difficult to sleep, and because your body is hard at work keeping itself warm the immune system will be down, making one more susceptible to illness if one is exposed. Private rooms are sometimes available, but getting one is akin to winning the lottery.

So, when I’m sick in bed, lucky enough to have a bed to be sick in, I think about how perverse our world is that it is such a privilege to have a bed, such a privilege to have a clean warm place in which to recover. Everyone should have a room, have a bed, a blanket, a clean bathroom and warm water. Treating every human being with decency is expensive, but in a world of billion dollar yachts, we clearly aren’t trying hard enough.

Transcendence and Reflexivity in Fanon: Nationalism and National Consciousness

The key distinction between nationalism and national consciousness with respect to culture is not, as it first appears, the mere redefining of relationships. Now, you could make an argument that it is just about redefining relationships. If you did this you would say something like the meaning of inertia is stasis, relationships staying the same, whereas the dynamic culture is one in which relationships are changing, redefined. This would not require a notion of transcendence, you could think it purely in terms of transformation on a single theoretical plane, no reflexion only disruption. And perhaps the birth of national sentiment, and the initial attempts to “to reanimate the cultural dynamic and to give fresh impulses to its themes, its forms, and its tonalities” remains for Fanon on an immanent plane, not yet reflexive, not yet “conscious”. The evidence for this is that the effects of these re-animations are “nill”. If they are reflexive, their reflexivity will show up in their taking account of not having an effect. To speak simply: those who re-animate cultural dynamics in a way that merely reproduces existing power relations and acts as a pacification for settler colonialism or other forms of oppression are only reflexive insofar as they actually reflect on the political impact of their work.

 

Now, the reason why I think you need a notion of transcendence is that in order to move from nationalism to national consciousness you need a “consciousness”. The consciousness is the national culture becoming conscious of itself as having a role at reforming the culture, meaning the “whole body of efforts made by a people in the sphere of thought to describe, justify, and praise the action through which that people has created itself and keeps itself in existence”, and directing that reform towards liberation and against the colonizer. This reflection is transcendental, or transcending if you want, because it doesn’t remain fully embedded in the thing it is reflecting on. You could think about it this way: if self criticism isn’t transcendental, then you could never come to any answer in self-reflection other than everything you’re doing is great, all your ideas and the relationship between your actions and your ideas and your beliefs don’t need any change, and everything you’re doing is having all the effects you are expecting it to have. This would amount to a kind of un-consciousness, and that’s I believe what immanence literally is, a kind of pure determinism. And of course we may believe that we are more determined than we think we are (i.e. Foucault especially early Foucault). But there is something weird about this – from the fact that we can criticize our self-consciousness as not really self conscious but actually secretly determined actually implies that we are even more free than we thought, because we can stand above our whole forms of seemingly free discursive production and recognize the unfreedom in it and then try to effect changes to moderate those forms of implicit coercion.

 

Using transgressive Artists as an example, there is no reason to think this reflection should be theorized only abstractly, you can as easily do an anthropology of it by interviewing artists who are criticizing their own work in terms of its political impacts, and evaluating art cultures which are collectively engaging in this self criticism. Self-criticism is a part of the struggle as important as force because force without self-criticism can probably always be contained by a counter force which is self critical (not only the revolutionaries are conscious and reflective – the state is eminently reflexive with how it responds to resistance!). And of course analysis of this self criticism can benefit from critiques like Foucault who might show that what we thought was self-criticism was actually much more determined than we thought – but again this is not an argument for the non-transcendental quality of reflexivity rather an empirical and political matter about the difficulty of such criticism – and the reflexive/transcendental attitude is the one that doesn’t give up the possibility of criticism because it is hard but faces this difficulty as a challenge.

 

There is perhaps an ambiguity in the notion of ‘dynamic’ and this gives rise to the multiple possible interpretations of Fanon’s work, if we think that dynamic just means changing then any random chaotic and/or externally determined process is dynamic. But liberation is not merely a reaction against the colonizer (anti-colonial) but also the overcoming of internal repression and inertia in which the colonized liberate themselves and become freely, actively, consciously engaged in the production and reproduction of their lives, which means, their culture. Now I’m perfectly guilty of perhaps over stressing the anti-colonial aspect of Fanon’s theory (in reaction against the notion of post coloniality), but if we take this idea of “consciousness” seriously we must admit that Fanon is not merely anti-colonial but also a theorist of beyond the anti-colonial. But this is not “post colonial”, at least not the common meaning of the term, because all postcolonial theorists ever talk about are the remnants of coloniality in the “post colony”. The true after of anti-colonial struggle is not “freedom-from” colonial oppression (i.e. defined as “after” the colonial period), but “freedom-for”, in other words a self-conscious liberated culture that determines itself.

 

Fanon’s belief in the transcendent imputus of armed liberation was probably too strong. He believed even that in places where the struggle was relatively short the fact that the people were involved in it would make them un-dupable, un-trickable, encouraging them to de-mystify their culture and take charge of their own destiny. This belief was probably justified, but not as a political philosophy but a truth which is the postulate of the militant on the barricade. No one dies on the barricade for incremental progress, and no one joins the FLN to theorize about how shitty the decolonized state will be to live in because culture won’t become self conscious, because people won’t internally decolonize, and because the armed struggle will create a culture where people believe problems can be solved by guns in which resort to armed violence is a normal part of the political process and every party has a militia.

 

Perhaps, then, Fanon’s belief in transcendence, and belief that armed struggle is a motivating source of transcendence is too strong a belief. Contestation, confrontation, maybe these forms of experience have less transcendence in them than Fanon believed. Not none, because that would be to deny the potentiality of political positive transformation altogether. But without reflexivity on the side of transgression, norms will adapt and win – and we should never under estimate the importance of security states like Occupied Palestine and in the past Ireland as laboratories in which the state uses force and reflection to strengthen its capacity and finess in responding to transformative disruptions. If those engaged in the projects of transformative disruptions, whether in non violent protest, art culture, or armed struggle, are not more reflexive, more transcendent than the state, then we may be properly be able to say that Revolutions have no future.