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The Danger of Justice Done OR Why We Need a Bad Conscience

It’s been a hectic couple weeks in the various institutions that concern my life.  The discipline of philosophy reached a boiling point and some well-respected important philosophers finally said enough is enough and organized some collective action to put a stop to some pretty unethical behavior.  Leigh Johnson has blogged an Archive of the Meltdown if you want to read more about it.  And Wabash has been actively responding to some pretty serious issues that needed to be addressed at the same time.

I’m glad for these actions, but I’m worried, too.  I think there is a danger when we do what is just to congratulate ourselves a little too excitedly and to let that congratulations become an avenue for contentment and self-satisfaction.  I was reminded yesterday of a point Jacques Derrida makes about how our acts of hospitality and justice are–I want to go further and say must be–accompanied by a bad conscience.  Derrida recognizes that when he feeds the poor or gives a place to stay to someone in need he is leaving out all the other hungry and all the others with no place to lay their heads.  Responding to one Other gives that Other precedence over all the other equally demanding Others to whom we are responsible.  To suppose that we are good in these moments leaves out two important things: a) that our act was too little too late, almost inevitably and b) that there is still more to be done.

Concerning the field of philosophy, as John Drabinski points out, we’ve let this go on far too long so we should be real hesitant to pat ourselves on the back because finally, after so many incidents, we have decided that the current situation cannot stand.  Oh also, I’m not sure anything hasactually changed.  Leiter seems to be blogging away as if nothing as happened.  There is no clear word that the Philosophical Gourmet Report has changed hands or that it’s changing hands will really bring about any real changes in the way it works and affects the field.  So acting as if we all did something just and good and can feel good about it seems akin to the ethical problems of voluntourism–you went to do something good for your own good conscience.

But not just for your own good conscience, I’m concerned that we might be in danger of doing these things for our own better production of ourselves.  Become a better subject of neoliberalism by being on the right side of the current injustices so that you can get invited to be a part of this important new group which will be good for your career or recognized as driving that change so that you’ll be asked to chair that committee.  If we weren’t doing these things for ourselves, but for the pursuit of justice itself, we would be less calculating, less concerned with picking the causes that make us look good, the ones with the good victims not the agitating and difficult ones.  The neoliberal pressure (which I have been thinking more and more about from reading Robin James’ blog) to make ourselves the best commodities for the labor market makes us all feel like we need to be constantly working on ourselves, improving ourselves so that we look like the best possible faculty member.  These are the strictures of capitalism, yes, so not everyone is as capable of ignoring these pressures.  There might even be a certain privilege in being able to ignore them.  Or even a way of looking like an even better commodity for the market because you have shown yourself to be someone who is willing to ignore these pressures which really just captures you back in the whole lame mess to begin with.

I’ve been thinking this week that decisions to move on certain things, to rectify injustices here and not there should leave us with a bad conscience.  They should leave us with a bad conscience because they show that we do want to show up for the respectable causes and respectable victims and they allow us to ignore all the calculations and institutional workings that lead us to see some efforts as worthwhile and others as not important, or at least, not important to us.   If we don’t have the bad conscience then we are likely to walk around congratulating ourselves for our good deeds rather than seeing all the things we don’t do anything about and all the work that is to be done.   If we don’t have a bad conscience, it seems that we have left the field too early and we have failed to recognize just how far down we are (or whatever the sports metaphor would be for really losing but thinking we’re at least tied).  I support Steven Salaita and the September Statement, but I worry that it is good for me in some way.  So I think I need to have some more bad conscience.

I actually really hate the idea of bad conscience.  I don’t like the idea of an ethics that springs out of guilt and responsibility to the Other.  I’d rather have a collectivizing, empowering and an affirming ethics.  But sometimes situations call for Derrida.  And even though he’s a charlatan, this seems to be one of those times.

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