This is the sort of thing that’s really fueling my dissertation, but I’m not allowed to put it in unless it can be puppeteered by some series of academic studies or fantastic/eternal philosophical or sociological writings, which I find disappointing. If academic research doesn’t have this kind of purpose, why would people do it? If my dissertation can’t be linked directly to outcomes that matter—to me and the world—then why spend an enormous amount of time and energy on it? I don’t want to be chained to subdued and convoluted text because it’s more academic or ‘rigorous’ – the true measure of rigor is just what I propose here, why this work matters. Really.
Let’s start with a general goal that most Americans can agree on: a desire for a world where more people are more frequently able to have access to opportunities. Now let’s focus the example with some feminist consideration: a world where all people of all genders have an increased right and prospect of being who they want to be. When a little boy or girl grows up I want them to be able to think they are capable of doing all kinds of amazing things, like being an astronaut, a good parent or person who inspires positive change in the world. I don’t want gender roles to push us into being one way or another if they isolate us from other ways of being. I wouldn’t measure a society by its support of people who fit the traditions, but by how they regard the people who are deviant. I would worry if all women grew up in a given culture and only ever wanted to be housewives and homemakers (or business owners or warriors or any other singe ‘profession’). Likewise I would worry if most of the professions that were female-dominated in a given culture were the ones that were less respected or powerful. This won’t sound surprising to many, it’s just the mantra of equal-opportunity, diversity and freedom. The bottom line to all of this is that I want people to be confident, know that they are powerful, inspired to act, but also be thoroughly grounded in self-awareness. I have no interest in ignoring the social structures that shape our experiences in day to day life. On the contrary, I want everyone to be not only aware of them but to also see themselves as agents who can and will shape them. This is what I mean by empowered. I think on some level we are obligated to actively and purposefully influencing the world and the lives of the people around us.
Arguments against this go something like…
Why tell people they can do anything when they can’t? People are unequal.
While I am interested in deciphering and even sometimes disassembling the structural barriers that push us into place – racism, biology, language, etc… I don’t want to dwell on them too much. If we see ourselves as doomed or people as too limited we start out defeated. Better to recognize the constraints and work where we do have flexibility and propensity for change.
If everyone is assertive, or an active agent like you suggest, no real productive work will get done. People will all try to dominate one another or be hopelessly caught up talking.
This statement gets at two challenges: the question of if dialectic (or argument) brings about constructive social change, and if dialogue (discussion with the objective of just understanding the other participants) can translate into change. I think we should be concerned about these things but know the outcomes are not certain. Law is, on the whole, good example of dialectic-fueled exchange that results in what I think is mostly positive change. The sharing of perspectives ultimately motivates the most important kind of learning, which I think makes for the foundation of action, so dialogue too, has potential, though I wish I had a good institutional example of it. Truthfully I fall somewhere in between. I’m out to understand other people because their perspectives matter and I care about them, but I also want to work with them to solve problems.
Why do you think this will work? It hasn’t already… Look at how unhappy people in ‘free’ societies are.
If the aggregate level of agency in a society is increased I don’t know that everyone will be happier relative to each other. I don’t know that the disenfranchised will automatically be anymore better off, the qualifications for what it is to be disempowered may simply change. I do sincerely think, though, that if on the whole everyone is more engaged with understanding the world, their place in it (communities), and the perspectives of others we will have grown in a positive way. I do think a key to finding happiness is having (and understanding) the means to change your conditions (be they relationships, activities, environment, self-image) for the better. I think this change must come about by action, be it communication, creation, or something else.
In some sense this is essentially the debate of structure vs. agency. To explain this, I’d like to draw upon Lawrence Lessig’s depiction of constraints, because I think it’s handy. While he speaks about them in the context of the internet, they map well to the world in general. They are: law, social norms, the market, and architecture. Most people know the debate of the first three well, so I won’t do much to characterize them, other than to say that I think that all of these are essentially functions of (or permutations of) social norms. Architecture is interesting though, it gets at the structure beneath things. Lessig refers to it as the way the internet is coded or the design of an interface, and how this shapes out ability to act within this system. It could be more broadly interpreted as the physical bounds, like biology or physics, that in part define our context. I do, most certainly believe these exist (though their definitions may not always be expressible in static ways, like numbers), and that they are not merely fabricated. I just don’t think we should let them matter too much. Social norms are the site of change I’m fascinated by, but it feels like postmodernist cultural studies people and the like get lost in them, without really having a clear-cut plan to change them. Well, here we have it – we can make for policy (law) that makes people be one way or another (the libertarians groan), we can make choices more or less costly, appealing to rationale (the emotional thinkers balk), or we can mess with the stuff that we use to operate daily (make the system have some set of ways of being, or work to negotiate it: remix language, rewrite code, which is hard and only some are in a position to do it), or finally we can sell one another on ideas (create norms), be this via evangelism or living the change you wish to be.
This struggle for empowerment is what motivates my dissertation and much of my life. I can only hope I’ve made it clear enough here for those who find it to be so puzzling.