Contemplation: Association, Organization, and the Autonomous Individual

Two recent reads from The New York Times have caught my attention.  The first appears in the NYT’s philosophy blog, The Stone; “The Very Angry Tea Party,” by J.M. Bernstein.  The second is an Op-Ed column by Ross Douthat titled “No Mystique About Feminism.”  Now, it would not be too much of a stretch to use both in a critique of modern American conservatism (even considering that Douthat is regarded as a conservative columnist), but that is not my real interest.  My real interest is in what Bernstein terms “the deeply held fiction of individual autonomy.”  It is this idea that I find fascinating, and that I think feeds right into Douthat’s piece.

I want to start with Douthat and the idea of the multitude of female conservative political candidates in regards to the greater sphere of feminism.  We can look back at the epic rise (and occasional little falls) of Sarah Palin and easily take a perspective on what it spells for feminism.  There are those of us who’d proclaim her success for feminism and then there are those who would say that she is a serious blow to the greater cause of feminism.  Regardless of either stance I think that Douthat has it correct in that, in the very least, Palin and the other female conservative politicians on the scene, are a “consequence of [feminism’s] victories.” 

In truth I do not have much of an opinion of whether Sarah Palin and her other female conservative cohorts are feminist at all, but I am interested in the in-group, out-group dialogue that circulates around this discussion.  The idea of “what does it take to be a feminist?”  The question can essentially be extended to any other philosophy, politics, religion, and really and general association in that the merit of being in or out of a group becomes a terribly subjective matter based, almost entirely on specific perspectives as well as the benefits associated with general rhetoric of being in or out (Whether Palin “really” is a feminist, there are definitely rhetorical benefits from the discussion of the matter).

Part of the problem that I think we all face, when discussing philosophies (and I will use “philosophies” broadly here to include politics and religion as well), is that to some degree there is an assumption that every philosophy has an ideal, “true” form.  That is, that there is a correct practice to the philosophy and that the practitioners will regard it in a perfect and correct way.  In some ways this idea or ideal forms could be traced all the way back to Plato’s concepts as described in the allegory of the cave.  With that in mind then, we may think that there is indeed a true feminist philosophy.  What becomes the problem though is that there is disagreement on what that “true” philosophy is.  I may say one thing, as it fits me, and you may say a completely different thing, and the obvious question that will arise is “who is right?”

Once again we find ourself facing the perspective matter.  We come to see that the world of philosophies is heavily dictated by subjective ideas.  However people continue to leverage the claim to be representing the “ideal” form and so there are those who strongly hold that Sarah Palin is a far cry from a “true” feminist (and likewise you get politicians like Charlie Crist who are decried for not being conservative “enough”).  Certainly this is on one hand a rhetorical matter based on swaying opinions and ideas, but I think that it is also, very much, a matter of strong held beliefs.

Which brings me around to the concept of individual autonomy.  Our beliefs build a whole lot of what we, at any given time, describe as ourselves, and it becomes of grave importance to us that what we believe is “true.”  If what we believe is not true then there becomes a serious affront to our very understanding of ourselves and thus a challenge to that autonomy.  If I have a particular view of feminism then I will hold this view to be the one approaching the ideal form.  If then, somebody like Sarah Palin comes along, and is proclaimed to be a feminist, but her philosophies clearly contrast with my own, then there has become a challenge.  Either my or her philosophy is the one approaching the ideal, but which is it?  If the philosophy is somehow broad enough to be inclusive to vastly differing opinions and ideas then to what degree does it promote an autonomous self?  And here is the core of it I think.  The concept of an autonomous self is, at its very core, problematic because it either means we isolate ourselves in a purely subjective view of all things in the world, or we relinquish some degree to allow for association with other in certain areas.

What happens is that we want to limit just how inclusive our association models become, because if they are two broad then the create a greater affront to our perceived notions of self autonomy.  However, if we restrict our views to a tight set, of which we proclaim to adhere to the philosophical ideals, and further ensure that practitioners to not stray too far, then the  subjective self can continue to exist with a degree of individual autonomy.

The recent rhetoric of American politics, especially in regards to how the Tea party practitioners discuss it, has focused heavily on the “real” America and what it means to be a “real” American.  If what Bernstein says is correct, and the preservation of individual autonomy and the sovereign self really is at the core of the Tea Party movements goals, then this idea of “real” America and Americans is a given.  The strive for maintaining the perspective of individual autonomy would require a strong voice on ideal philosophies, most specifically the ones viewed by the self, is bound to become restrictive in allowance of association.

I tend to side with Bernstein in all of this, that in fact the sovereign self is illusory and we rely much more upon greater associations than we may ever be comfortable admitting.  Society exists because humanity is incapable, as a species, maintaining existence as a bunch of individual self autonomous beings.  We desire individuality because it provides us with support for our concepts of self, but in the end we still require association to accomplish our ends and goals.  Any movement that becomes too fixated on the goal of restricting association in the pursuit of obtaining the ideal form (and preserving the autonomous individual) will eventual fail because without adjustable association it collapses in on itself.  Bernstein ends his pieces by calling the Tea Partiers nihilists, I don’t quite go that far, but I will say that they appear to be adhering to an unmaintainable vision of ideal philosophies all in the end goal of supporting the illusory sense of self autonomy.  What I think they risk (and likewise to anybody else who holds to firmly to the sense of self autonomy) is becoming hypocritical in the long run.  If we do not allow for more flexible associations as well as more relative understandings of our philosophical views, then we risk eventually being faced with contradicting beliefs or motives that will require us to either further isolate ourselves or feel that we have relinquished ( or betrayed) a true cause.  Nihilism would result from the end assumption that only the autonomous self can exist with its perfect philosophical forms.  That single autonomous self might then be able to have a very lonely celebration of achieving true ideals.

~ by Nathaniel on June 16, 2010.

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