The Reduction of Self into the Same: Modernity Exposed
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…
Declaration of Independence
Drawing heavily on John Locke, Jefferson, in drafting the Declaration of Independence, states the case of modernity quite well, especially the sentiment that “all men are created equal.” Of course, when Jefferson referenced “all men” he didn’t include women, men without property, slaves, or others that were socially unequal to the propertied class in the then thirteen American colonies of Great Britain. No, “all men” referred to those men who owned property, land and houses, chattel including animals and slaves, and other evidence of substance. In the nearly 240 years since the Declaration of Independence was written, the very notion of equality in the United States expanded to include working males, women, and others originally excluded from the body politic. But, equality does not mean the same thing as justice or fairness. Simply to offer people the right to vote without providing them with an empathetic hand is one technical definition of equality but it hardly qualifies as fair or just. What modernity understands as equality is merely the concept of equal treatment under the law and even that idea is questionable as the United States disproportionately prosecutes and incarcerates people of color when compared to white people; this is, of course, only a single example of injustice under the flag of equality. Another arena where the failure of equality to render justice is in education. Urban schools are severely underfunded compared to suburban schools (rural schools also fare poorly) yet, in the current climate of assessment of educational progress through standards and testing, all children are measured against the same standards.
What the modern state does well is to embrace the rhetoric of embracing diversity through equality while creating definitions of belonging that reduces the individual, the self, into the same, the normative citizen. This reduction is carried out through a massive bureaucracy, one that is ubiquitous, responsible to the next level up the ladder according to Zygmunt Bauman, and is only concerned with efficiency and economy; doing the task quickly and for the least amount of money is an important bureaucratic goal. What this does, in practice, is to create rules for belonging and rules for effective exclusion from the body politic. While the rhetoric of embracing diversity is politically correct, the bureaucracy works hard to undermine this very concept by denying the uniqueness of each and every human being through the public policy of defining what is and is not normative. This practice is ethically bankrupt. By denying uniqueness, the bureaucratic apparatchik writes rules and regulations for each and every aspect of life resulting in alienation of body, mind and spirit except for those who are able to comply with the bureaucratically designed normative or desired compartmentalized compliance.
Let me provide an example with which I am most comfortable, that of k-12 public education. Since the early 1980s, coinciding with the publication of the Reagan administration’s publication of A Nation at Risk authored by Chester Finn of the Department of Education, a document bemoaning the failure of American public education mainly through a comparison of testing performance of American school children with the performance of children of other nations, the American political (and in some ways but hardly universally advocated by those of us who inhabit the community of professional educators) community and the right wing of American politics pushed for improvement on testing scores through the initiating of written standards to which teachers and their students will be held responsible. Berliner noted that the crisis in education was a Manufactured Crisis but his words fell on deaf ears mainly because those pushing for standards and single instrument assessment were ideologically committed to the idea of standards and testing, facts be damned. For the last 40 plus years, the standards and testing movement (funded largely by the testing and assessment industry) has evolved into a bureaucratic exercise in refining and rewriting standards and creating uniformity of testing so as to carry out the task of assessment in an efficient and economical manner. In fact, however, nothing has changed in the relative performance of children when measured by single instrument testing. Standards are written to embrace middle and upper class values thereby depriving those outside of the privileged classes access to fairness in education. I often told my students that the game of school is a middle class game played well by those who comply with the rules of the game while alienating those who are defined as outsiders by those writing the standards. While this brief argument is scant on details, it is nevertheless, one that I am developing elsewhere and will soon publish. For now, however, the argument is one of reducing each and every child in public education to the same, an act that embraces the idea of the commune, the group, the whole while eschewing the uniqueness of the individual child, his or her experiences in the world and crushing curiosity and creativity.
There are, however, particular cases in which it is efficacious to smooth data. Medicine is one such example where statistical analysis of competing procedures, drug therapies and other new treatment options makes complete sense because each and every variable other than the experimental variable can be controlled. In social science there are too many variables outside the control of the experimenter leaving the results of any experiment only suggestive and not generalizable. The application of scientific experimental methods to social sciences does not produce reliable results nor does it produce verifiable results in redundant experimental designs attempting to repeat the experimental results of others. Yet, sadly, through a profound misunderstanding of scientific experimentation and statistical results in social sciences, politicians continue to call for reliance on data driven teaching.
The very notion of the smoothing of society is the result of modernity’s rush to equality rather than to fairness and justice. This rush to equality is selfish at its core, providing a rational for acquisition and protection. Freedom is seen not as one in which justice prevails rather it is understood as one in which I must protect what is mine at all costs. Freedom under equality does not recognize the other, does everything it can to remove the other from the body politic sometimes overtly through incarceration and often through economic deprivation. In this sense the modern era is morally and ethically bankrupt.
Only by embracing the individual, the uniqueness of the other person, the contributions of that very uniqueness to the structure of society can modernity be left behind in the rubbish heap where it belongs. In the post-modern world, diversity is embraced, evidence trumps ideology and fairness and justice trumps equality. In a world where the self is responsible for the welfare of the other without reservation or expectation of reciprocation, the self is open to the uniqueness of the other, embracing the diversity of the other while waiting in proximate space for the call of the other to trigger responsibility. I often want to think of the posture of the self announcing its presence as response-ability, the ability to respond to the call of the other. While both responsibility and response-ability are pronounced the same, the distinction can only be seen in the written word, as letters on a page. The underlying force of the difference between the two may be thought of as responsibility being responsible ‘to’ the other whereas response-ability is understood as being response-able ‘for’ the other; a distinction of embrace the former being something akin to a smoothing of relationships into the same while the latter is one in which the absolute uniqueness of the other reminds the self of its own uniqueness allowing embrace to emerge.
- Modernity and Ethical Engagement (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)