What Gets in the Way of Negotiating Social Justice? Part 2. Unequal Voices and Hidden Agendas

(a continuation of Empathy, Inclusion, and Moral Dialog or What Gets in the Way of Negotiating Social Justice? )

A person values some states of affairs over others and acts accordingly.
A person will not choose less behavior potential over more.
A person requires a community in order for it to be possible for him to engage in human behavior at all.
A community is characterized by a common world, a language, a structure of social practices, statuses, way of living, choice principles, and individual
To engage in a Deliberate Action is to participate in a social practice of the community.
Peter Ossorio, Place, 1998
I’ll warn you in advance. There is are many loose ends and uncertainty in what follows.
The tension I want to explore involves what is public and open to negotiation and what is private and will not be revealed except under special circumstances. This shapes the playing field where conflicts of justice are presented if not decided. Even if the courts and legislatures define the law, the varied public sentiments prepare the ground for the legal outcome. The Supreme Court’s 2015 decision on marriage equality would have been unlikely without a critical mass of acceptance having already been achieved by many individuals with good standing within the national community.
Steven Lukes reminds us that power involves the ability to control the agenda and establish the topic of public conversation. The vested interests that shape the public agenda are always in play among individuals who have their own abilities and dispositions to influence each other. But this is warped when the values in play are hidden or the power to influence is vastly uneven. Values can be hidden from oneself and others in bad-faith or self-deception, or by unconsciously effecting the agenda in an unexamined manner. But political and moral dialog can also be distorted by the weight of big-money interests. We all know that money doesn’t just talk, it screams. It can buy the agenda and billboard its propaganda. Currently, the powers of corporate capitalism are overwhelming in forming the public conversation and agenda since corporations now have some of the legal status of “persons” in regard to “speech”.
Corporate personhood renders my argument of inevitable social progress trivial or absurd when corporate interest is in conflict with social justice. If, on the other hand, the two interests coincide, justice as enhanced fairness has a much better chance. This restricts the field of change. To avoid despair, I’m going to table this theme and confine my argument to circumstances where corporate interests are not in fundamental conflict with personal liberation. Granted, I’ll have to ignore class based economic injustice, many of the issues of income inequality, and limit my focus to some of the cultural conflicts of racism, sexism, religion, and homophobia. It will be part of the paradox of increased economic injustice during the same historical period that has expanded educational, housing, and voting rights, normalized homosexuality, and legalized gay marriage. But tragically, consider how corporate interests can stifle progress toward equality of health care and accommodations for parents and the disabled if these enhancements, entitlements, are too much a threat to the bottom line? Does the corporate and national interests concerning climate change establish a generational injustice we will be hand our children?
The Hypothesis is Limited to the Moral Dialog of Potentially Equal Players
So with this problematic limitation, what else hampers the negotiations and moral dialog of human beings struggling for increased emancipation and fairness on matters of age, race, gender, religion, and sexual preference? Where politics is most local, individuals might have the best chance of being heard by each other. Here the community of family and neighborhood still counts. Here’s some possible space that big money, corporate personhood, and gerrymandered conformity might not overwhelm and fill.
My starting point is the mix of consistent, conflicted, and independent alliances we all have. The conflicts that involve the public presentation of our values that may affirm our allegiance to some while degrading our position with others. When push comes to shove, who counts the most in my life? Where does my integrity rest and what compromise can I afford? Are the true colors I show everyone the same? Can I be authentic and two faced? Here is the problem and opportunity of the varied fronts we cherish. Is this a potential engine of progress? And is this dynamic different when our local community, where we make and eat our bread and butter, is successfully cosmopolitan or homogenous?
All of us are members of various communities, tempered by the specifics of education, job, profession, intimate relations, family, etc. Membership has its privileges but can also be an embarrassment, a source of shame and guilt. A community’s social practices and accepted manners shift over time. Consider heartfelt racism, sexism, and homophobia. Or “lighthearted” racist, sexist, and homophobic banter. What was once normal, perhaps laudable, becomes reprehensible. In times past, without second thought, what could be said with friends, family, and professional associates, might still be acceptable in some communities but cause a double-take and censure in others. Privately, my boorish friends and I might continue talking the trash that provokes righteous outrage from my wife and children, and possible firing from my job. Values and acceptable self-presentations change. What was once public is now private and a potential embarrassment. Still, for a host of reasons I might continue this banter with some, careful when family and colleagues are within earshot. It’s not easy to find new “enlightened” friends, and friends are friends for all sorts of reasons.
But what does this say about my values, the priorities that routinely shape my appraisals of self and world? The public and private nature of what I hold dear can vary irregularly, in both self-deceptive and self-aware hypocrisy. I might tolerate or overlook conflict, ambivalence, and contradiction.
We all know there are judgments we can openly discuss, negotiate, reconsider, and try to reorder in significance. Our prejudices, our pre-judgments, may diminish through examination over time. Then there are those appraisals that I am reluctant to admit, hold shameful, and will certainly not discuss, at least not with you. And, perhaps, I make significant appraisals unconsciously the basis of which is unavailable for my introspection. I’ve come to believe this last group of motives, absent significant psychopathology, is both very difficult to reach and not often an overriding force, but to the extent it’s significantly at play, judgment will be compromised. I’ll have return to this theme.
Let’s focus on the interplay of appraisals and values easily available and those that we are reluctant to acknowledge. The reluctance that I’m interested in is not simply a concern with social censure but more along the lines of a reluctance to even go there with myself. This is not the domain of secret glee but of shameful impulse. These are the matters I don’t want to think about won’t easily admit. This, I think, is what the psychodynamic psychotherapies actually explore and map, and where empathy and safety are key. This is where the public presentation of values I am reluctant to acknowledge may influence my reappraisal of their significance and change the community I prefer to identity with or support. In the absence of “publicity”, unexamined problematic values are a hidden landmine in negotiation.
For simplicity, I’ll refer to these motivational grouping, these collections of values, as domains or zones one, two, and three, with one being the easily shared and accessible appraisals, two being the domain I’m reluctant to acknowledge and three being the dynamic unconscious.
Notice the connection between reason and motivational weight. The greater the weight the greater the motivational priority. But there is nothing that requires what has the greatest weight to be in zone one. People can be reluctant to acknowledge or unconscious of the actual weights relevant to their appraisals. You can be sure that the extent people don’t acknowledge these priorities, their negotiations may falter and appear in bad faith.
For now, let’s attend to the interplay of zone one and two and prepare to ask, “in the privacy of the voting booth, what values ring loudest”?
Peter Ossorio (2013, p 226-227) identified four “family resemblance” groups of reasons people have for doing what they do: Hedonics, Prudence, Ethics, and Aesthetics. Briefly, hedonics involves variations on pleasure, pain, noxiousness, and disgust. Prudence concerns self-interest, advantage or disadvantage, and what I take to be good or bad for me. Ethical reasons involve my perspective on right and wrong, good and bad, justice, fairness, and where duty or obligation occur. Aesthetics involve how things fit together, artistically, socially, and intellectually.
These domains of intrinsic motivation can be complementary, independent, or in conflict. How individuals weigh the relative significance of these motivations define important aspects of character, their “true colors”. These patterns of significance, implemented in various ways, define the “through-lines” of our lives.
What I’d like us to notice is that domain two, the zone of reluctance, is not, under ordinary circumstance, open for debate or discussion and is accordingly resistant to negotiated change. The same holds for domain three, the unconscious, but here the situation is frozen. Worse, the “dynamic unconscious” lacks an aesthetic and ethical perspective since ethics and aesthetics require the ability to engage in Cognizant and Deliberate Action. Ethics and Aesthetics hinge on choice, even if that choice involves refusal. I can’t, as a matter of ethical principle, choose the high road over the low road if I’m not aware there’s a choice, nor can I sit down and refuse to move further. Similarly, in zone two reluctance, I might refuse to ask for direction and pretend not to see a fork in the road. And even if I am fully aware of a more ethical path, my journey might continue along predominately hedonic, prudent, and aesthetic lines. I’m complicated that way and so are you. Doing what’s “ethically right” is not always the top priority.
Back to the question of getting domain two out into the light of day.
Does the Fork in the Road lead to Degradation or Accreditation?
A set up for a thought-experiment: New neighbors move next to an already established family in the two very different neighborhoods I know well. The first neighborhood is where I now live, Boston’s South End. I think this is a very fine place, mixed income but skewing to upper-middle class, racially and ethnically diverse, gay and lesbian friendly, highly educated. I feel I belong here. I’m comfortable as I walk about. The second neighborhood I’d like us to consider is in Gastonia, North Carolina is where I grew up from forth grade through high school. I was mostly happy, there, too, and certainly felt safe and protected. Back then, my neighborhood, Gardner Park, was all white, very Christian, and as far as I knew, populated by married heterosexuals couples and their children. In 1959, my family, Jewish, moved to Gastonia from Minneapolis with a group of engineers and scientists so I didn’t start my life in the late 1950’s American South. I think this increased Gastonia’s Jewish population from about 50 families to maybe 52 or 53. The public racism, the in-your-face segregation from water fountains to classrooms, to neighborhoods was immediately startling. Teachers and classmates referring to “the niggers cross town” was normal speech. (Not that the neighborhoods I’d knew in Minneapolis were any less white, nor, for that matter, less homophobic, but I’d never heard such speech in public or private, let alone water fountains for white or colored. Being a Yankee and, as it happened, a Jewish skeptic of religion, my childhood sense of belonging was mixed. My sense of safety and belonging-while-an-outsider has its history here. And it’s a place of pride that I still feel Gastonia is one of my homes, but perhaps perverse pride).
Knowing something of where I come from provides perspective on my bias. Back to my thought-experiment: Let’s imagine a householder, a standard heterosexual white guy we’ll call WG, who with wife and children, lives either in my current neighborhood or in Gastonia. Keep in mind that WG’s South End neighbors predominately vote as liberal or progressive Democrats along with a few Greens and a “moderate” Republican or two sprinkled in. They talk about this in the dog park. In contrast, the predominately white neighborhoods in Gastonia vote Republican. If both places, WG fits in as one of the acceptable types in his neighborhood and values that and wants it for his family.
Now the new neighbors. First the South End: In the condo below WG, a mixed race gay couple moves in with their dog. The couple who moves in above is a white heterosexual couple who also, as it turns out, have a dog. WG like dogs. WG and his wife, being the neighborly sort, separately invites each new couple in for drink and conversation. Only one more imaginary fact. The new white heterosexual couple, who outwardly look the same demographic as WG, make it clear their significant disrespect for the downstairs neighbors they’ve seen but not spoken to. They make it clear they’ve braved the gay South End.
Now the same set up but in Gastonia. The new white couple expresses concern they weren’t warned before buying into a mixed race neighborhood and didn’t give a second thought when they wondered which of the gay men was the “wife”. Here’s my question. What do we imagine WG actually feels about these two neighbors? How will he talk to his wife and children who have also been witness to these encounters?
Let’s add another feature to our thought-experiment. For whatever reason, the gay couple prove, over time, to be thoughtful, helpful, and friendly. The white couple, not so much.
(Like all bad thought experiments, we must limit ourselves to these being the only stated facts).
Back to the “psychodynamic judgment diagram” and a bit more about WG. WG is a middle-aged standard white guy who reluctantly, zone 2, harbors racist and homophobic feeling. He grew up that way. OK, let’s be more real. At times, he wisecracks with some of his old friends in a undeniably racist and homophobe manner. After all, they get the joke. At home with family, this stuff rarely crosses his mind, and when it does he’s knows to be silent.
A point of practical theory: Evidently, some thoughts are more “reluctant-to-self-acknowledge” in some circumstances than in others. Here’s another assumption about actual empirical humans. Our different social contexts alter our self-presentation and disposition, and with this our sense of what is most consciously available. Circumstance factor into our psychological state and our immediately available configuration of motivational values. This is relevant to how zone 1 and zone 2 content shifts, this is where one’s sense of degradation and accreditation, a person’s ongoing and immediate feelings of standing in their relevant communities serve to maintain or change what is available for negotiation and moral dialog. What my family evokes is often significant different from what I find myself thinking in my office or with my friends. Circumstances evoke difference patterns of a person’s power’s and dispositions based on their perceived relevance. I am the same person with everyone, recognizably the same to me, without my self-presentation being consistent with others. I am authentically more than two-faced.
People live in a vast variety of separate and overlapping communities, cherishing some above others. Family over neighbor? Neighbor over boss? The communities people most value, most needs good standing, are the ones they will be most reluctant to violate. What is most available as zone 1 content, that most personally and publicly accessible, will reasonably be what a person believes will result in social practices the person’s most relevant valued communities find acceptable. (But keep firmly in mind that person’s integrity may involve their upholding the values of communities not immediately present to the eye but held in the heart).
Deliberate Action
Another point. Appraisals as an aspect of a deliberate action involve the recognition of both what is to be done and what is to be avoided. In contrast, what is found I zone 2, tend to be under-socialized and under-examined. This content is commonly what a person fears is degrading. There are matters I think about but don’t refuse to do and there are things I don’t want to think about and certainly don’t want to acknowledge doing. This self abrogation is rarely separate from the expectation of public censure. The avoided thoughts are shameful. Zone one has a place for the shameful idea that I will carefully and prudently avoid enacting. I may be less careful about zone two. I am making the assumption that there is a good reason to know what to avoid in one’s nature, to know it well enough that it has been carefully thought through. I know, that I am an animal, sexual and possessive, but I try to be appropriate in my expression of of these desires.
But back to WG. WG, both North and South, are deliberate actors, whose appraisals follow from their hedonic, prudential, aesthetic, and ethical perspectives.
Here’s a reasonable bet: WG in the South End will tell his children and demonstrate though his careful behavior that their neighbor upstairs provides an example not to follow. It is less clear what WG in Gastonia will do. He belongs to many communities where his racism and homophobia are just fine and he wants his children to fit in. This is one of the problems of the homogeny. Still, he’s come to enjoy a weekly barbecue with his gay mixed race neighbors even though he won’t abide their mustard based sauce. He’s come to recognize that their marriage hasn’t cost him a dime and their sexual lives are no longer part of his disgusted fascination.
When we talk to our children and provide them the object lesson of our actions, we are a powerful source of influence. Whose voice are we most comfortable representing? When we engage with friends and neighbors, and especially when we enter into new relationships, we may have cause to recognize and reconsider our values. As deliberate actors we have the potential for an ethical perspective. We may come to appreciate the fairness of our neighbor’s concerns even if our only gain is their happiness. This doesn’t mean this will count for more than our other values. But it might, especially if know well enough that supporting my neighbor doesn’t put me in a worse position.
My empathic identification with my children gives me profound reason to want them to fit in, a prudential and aesthetic value. My neighbor’s sexual life might still make me squirm but that may count for less than he’s become my good neighbor deserving of his own satisfaction. It turns out that mustard sauce ain’t so bad.
Does this set the stage for some social progress? Might it effect my vote or what my children come to see as reasonable fairness across difference?

Written By Wynn Schwartz Ph.D

was originally published @ Lessons in Psychology: Freedom, Liberation, and Reaction and has been syndicated with permission.


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