Not so fast

Something from an essay by Richard Rorty – ‘Globalization, the Politics of Identity and Social Hope,’ in Philosophy and Social Hope (1996). See what you think.

As I see it, the emergence of feminism, gay liberation, various sorts of ethnic separatism, aboriginal rights, and the like, simply add further concreteness to sketches of the good old egalitarian utopia…In that society, people who wanted to think of themselves as Basque first, or black first, or women first, and citizens of their countries or a global cooperative commonwealth second, would have little trouble doing so. For the institutions of that commonwealth would be regulated by John Stuart Mill’s dictum that everybody gets to do what they like as long as it doesn’t interfere with other people’s doing the same.

Well – it was 1996, which probably helps to explain it, but that passage strikes me as way too easy. Basque first, women first – right; but what if it’s Saudi first, or men first? What if you pick the hard examples instead of the easy ones? What happens then? Is it just an accident that he chose easy examples? I don’t know – but I can’t help thinking that he should have realized that ‘women first’ necessarily implies ‘men first’ and that then should lead to the thought that ‘men first’ could very easily include ‘men who define maleness as superiority to and dominance of women’ among the men who want to think of themselves as men first; and that that puts the whole easy formula in question. That’s one of the rocks we keep tripping over in this identity thing – for some people, it is the case that their identity is closely involved with the right or ability to subordinate other people, and/or to deny them the ability to think of themselves as whatever they like first. And the emergence of, for instance, ‘ethnic separatism, aboriginal rights, and the like’ does not necessarily work toward a more egalitarian utopia; it can work for the opposite. What if part of the ‘ethnic’ in ethnic separatism consists largely of the segregation and subordination of women? I bet we can – right now, all by ourselves, with no help – think of some ethnic separatisms of which that is the case. I can. Can you? I knew you could.

So – it’s too easy. And he wrote it in such a way that it’s too easy – he wrote it in such a way that it slides neatly around the hard part. Objection, Your Honor.

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