Thursday, April 28, 2016

Rock relations and tolerance

The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls. Pablo Picasso:
Been thinking about rocks a bit and noticing that while I collect pictures of all my relations, I often overlook rocks.  I am still trying to figure out my relationship with these relations.  Does anyone else have this challenge?

While we were away last week, I finished reading the paper "Tolerance as an Ideological Category" by Slavoj Zizek.  Here he explores why many current social problems (like poverty) are expressed as issues of tolerance and not as the deeper core issues such as inequality or injustice that may have significant influence on these problems.  He asks why the proposed solutions to these problems is expressed as a need to recommit ourselves to tolerance, rather than work together to address these core issues.  He challenges us to ask why we are naturalizing these core issues as "cultural differences, different ways of life, which are something given, something that cannot be overcome, but must be merely tolerated?"  From here I did not see a direct link to issues of Métis identity formation, but it did draw to mind some of the stories about the road allowance people where culture/way of life came to equal poverty.

Zizek sees us/society as retreating away from direct solutions towards a more comfortable space of tolerance.  He continues by quoting Wendy Brown from "Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire", 2006
"The retreat from more substantive visions of justice heralded by the promulgation of tolerance today is part of a more general depoliticization of citizenship and power and retreat from political life itself. The cultivation of tolerance as a political end implicitly constitutes a rejection of politics as a domain in which conflict can be productively articulated and addressed, a domain in which citizens can be transformed by their participation."

I was struck by his definition of "Culture" as being, "collective and particular... exclusive of other cultures..." and thus by definition they result in a distrust of those who are not part of that culture.  Would this still be true in the Métis context?  Is the boundary with other cultures more porous, i.e, Cree, French, Scottish, Ojibway?  Or does the ongoing definitional discussion of who is Métis (only red river?) a signal that our culture is really no different when it comes to this question?

He then explores the historical development of tolerance and its reflection in the retreat of culture into the private sphere where they become personal idiosyncrasies.  I was really struck by the idea that tolerance need to be created as an idea.  I never thought about that before.  We do seem to use this idea a lot in our society, but it is actually rooted in some specific european histories.  So is this concept serving us or are we following this ideology without serious interrogation?

From this point he suggest that the only way to overcome intolerance is to essentialize each person as a subject, stripping away those "culture" elements.  Of course, he reminds us, this stripping away is not equal for all subjects as some subjects are already closer to this essentialized person (i.e., a well educated, white European man.)  Others of us lose more in this process.

He continues by exploring the paradox of needing to be "...intolerant towards cultures that prevent choice and tolerance" and discusses some of the societal challenges that come with the hierarchy of tolerance and ranking of specific cultural experience/practice to the level of "eccentric traditions," even more so I think, for those born into it, perhaps blind to the more "normal" options.  I can do what I want and be who I want at home, but once I enter the public sphere I better put on my citizen suit and leave that other "culture" stuff behind.

He further argues that, " a way the Western situation is even worse than nonliberal cultures because in it, oppression itself is obliterated, masked as free choice...freedom of choice often functions as mere formal gesture of consenting to one's oppression and exploitation."  Again referencing Brown.  So that we get caught in this performance of "universality".  We pretend that we are all equal and ignoring those circumstances where it becomes clear that this action is nothing more than theatre.  I think here of the homeless person "citizen".  I am not stopping this person from getting a job and a house, they are equal.  They are citizen have just made different choices. Joel likes often quotes Anatole France, "The law is just as both the poor and rich are forbidden from sleeping under bridges."

This constructed person is valued for their ability to thrive in this abstract space, and anything they might bring forward from their culture is of no value.  He nicely sums this up, "the medium here is not the message; quite the opposite.  The very medium we use ---universal intersubjective language --- undermines the message."  That the message has no space for those who are "different" (culture, ability, sex, gender presentation, sexuality) means that any following conversation leaves these folks out.  Ironic especially when many of these people would be the same people who are central to these discussions of tolerance and who are those impacted when those conversations go wrong.

He suggests that we might be better off starting anew from a space of recognition.  While many things pull us apart, we share the same struggle, and can support each other and be more effective in our responses when we work together.  I really agree with this point.  A couple of times in my life this concept has been very clear to me. 

First as a teenager in church, I noticed that they would always ask us to pray for and support people very specifically, with some kinds of afflictions given more time/honor.  Cancer was good - you were pretty blameless, but some other problems (especially mental health) were probably the manifestation of your sins so we didn't really need to pray as hard for them.  I always wondered why we didn't treat everyone as hurt, as people who needed support, instead of making these weird distinctions.

Second, this came across to me very clearly working on the anti-racism file, where we were stuck in this narrow view of the world where we cared if someone discriminated against you because of your race but not because you were a woman or indigenous person - that was a different organization.  I really wanted to bring the lens of intersectionality to this file where we could engage with people as whole entities who might be facing very complex and intersecting challenges. I never got to proceed with that work but these questions still really interest me. 

This article was interesting and raised a lot of interesting questions and some plausible, if abstract, solutions.  How could we put these lessons into practice?  Where are the spaces we need to question these constructions?  How does the everyday practice of your culture provide a possible antidote to these pressures?

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