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A Gray Post on a Sunny Friday Afternoon

Democracy and the Social Condition

It’s sunny this morning here in New York. Nonetheless, from this day forward, and retroactively, I am going to label my weekly posts “Gray Friday.” I am doing so because all of my posts have been informed by my appreciation of the beauty of the gray, and because I see a great advantage in making this explicit.

I announced my intention to write a gray series in an early PS post:

“I have a gray view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a gray view of neo-liberalism, a gray view about capitalism, and rationality and affect, a gray view of militant democracy, and a gray view of socialism. When many of my colleagues, friends, and indeed even relatives, see things in black and white, not to mention in red and green, I see ambiguity and complexity, want nuance, expect the less than ideal, but hope for, and do what I can to make possible, the better, knowing that to do what I can requires an appreciation of the power of the powerless, the power of the politics of small things in my terms. To be clear, I am not calling for moderation, or acceptance of the ways things are. I am radically committed to democracy and pragmatically committed, with qualifications, to non-violence. As I appreciate the beauty of gray, I also appreciate the limits of violence.”

But one thing led to another, and though I have written pieces occasionally on the topic, my intended series never came to be until now. So as Claire Potter will be doing “Purple Wednesdays,” I will do “Gray Fridays,” and we will be on the look out for other weekly contributors. I think Jeffrey C. Isaac’s “Blue Mondays” may be coming in the relatively near future. There will be some shared sensibilities in these color coded weekly columns, with notable differences of emphasis.

My appreciation of gray has political, as well as a more formal sociological inspiration.

The political concerns the special gray quality of democracy, as Adam Michnik explained in a lecture at The New School in December, 1996:

“Radical movements — whether under black or red banners — gladly use democracy in order to obliterate it. In the meantime, democracy is neither black nor red. Democracy is gray, is established only with difficulty, and its quality and flavor can be recognized best when it comes under the pressure of advancing red or black ideas… Democracy is a continuous articulation of particular interests, a diligent search for compromise among them, a marketplace of passions, emotions, hatreds and hopes; it is eternal imperfection, a mixture of sinfulness, saintliness, and monkey business.”

The sociological grounds for an appreciation of gray concerns what I call the social condition, an approach to social life that analyzes the tensions knitted into the social fabric that raises dilemmas, understanding that the dilemmas can’t be resolved through easy formulas derived from clear social scientific knowledge. The project is to understand the dilemmas, not to theoretically solve them. The project is to theoretically account and make room for democratic action.

As I started my study of the social condition, I thought about this as it concerned the education of the young in democratic societies, the problem of race as a social construction, and the complexities of social construction more generally. My colleague, Iddo Tavory, and my students have developed the theme, refining the theoretical understanding and applying it to a broad range of human endeavors. Facing the dilemmas arising out of social tensions, with an understanding that there are no easy solutions, reveals gray insights.

My most recent explicitly “gray post” was published at the end of last year, as I was trying to come to terms with “the politics of sex and the dilemmas of democracy at home and abroad.” In that piece, I added an important qualification on the gray insights, and I believe my dear friend, Adam Michnik, would agree: sometimes it is a matter of black and white in politics and in social investigation. Facts matter and they must be distinguished from opinion and fabrication. Hannah Arendt’s most brilliant piece of writing, in my judgment, “Truth and Politics” underscores this, something that is terribly important these days, and there is nothing gray about it. Further, when it comes to political commitments, compromise and the appreciation of the gray are essential for the ongoing practice of democracy, but so is the defense of democracy, in all its grayness, against its enemies, also something that is terribly important in the days of Trump, Duterte, Kaczyński, Orbán, Erdoğan, et al.

Thinking about the gray, reading Public Seminar this week, I am struck how our attempt to respond to the problems of the day, thinking about enduring human problems, has yielded textured gray insights.

Homeschooling is one way to address the tensions of democratic education. A concern of mine as I first started studying the social condition. While the public commitment to schooling should aspire to provide equal educational opportunity and be criticized when it all too often fails, those who choose to school their own children provide the special nurturing that they seek. Yet, there can be tragedy in this, a dark side, when abusive families are able to hide behind the facade of homeschooling. On the other hand, Nick Juravich demonstrates indirectly, with subtlety, “examining American inequality through the problem of teacher housing,” that the dark side of public education is when it provides not equal, but decidedly unequal educational opportunities, creating inequality both for students and their teachers.

Claire Potter reveals the beauty of the gray, and not only the purple, as Philadelphia Eagles fans include a diehard, leftist, lesbian Philly fanatic and Trump supporters, and the police pitted, not against each other but against homophobic religious fanatics and the elitist reflections of Frank Bruni in The New York Times. Potter’s is a purple appreciation of how “Blue America” and “Red America” have much in common with each other, despite their profoundly different political commitments. It also demonstrates the democratic beauty of the gray with its “mixture of sinfulness, saintliness, and monkey business,” as Michnik put it. Obviously Claire enjoyed a lot of monkey business at the Eagles game.

On a more serious note, Michael Weinman continuing reflections on the renewed academic free speech debate are clearly attempts to figure out how to proceed in the gray zone. He addresses the question of whether Milo Yiannopoulos should have been allowed to speak during the free speech week at Berkeley. I especially admire the way he works to think through this problem that has no easy answer. His is a kind of action thinking, reminding me of the action painting of the abstract expressionists.

And I also appreciate how Jeffrey C. Isaac explains why he is supporting and working for Liz Watson for Congress. He demonstrates the gray insight of Max Weber’s classic essay “Politics as a Vocation,” combining the ethics of responsibility and the ethics of ultimate ends. He demonstrates how the gray, and the black and white, come together, as he explains why he is supporting Watson over her primary opponent, making a “responsible argument,” and supporting either of them against their Republican opponent, making a strong argument of principle.

A final note, following up on my post last week on feminism and capitalism: I think that we are indeed at a moment of transformation in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, for all its limitations and with its accompanying backlash. I read this week a piece by Katha Pollitt that helps me explain why I think so. Our commonsense about the relationship between men and women is changing. The generally accepted misogyny of everyday life is openly being challenged. “[M]en’s freedom to bother,” as Politt puts it, is becoming a thing of the past. The hegemony of patriarchy is not over, of course. And even if it were, it would certainly not be for me to declare that. But I can see a transformation in commonsense and resistance to it. A good gray advance.

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

  • My grandfather was also of the opinion that everything in life was a matter of shades of grey. He had however a stark black-and-white view of Poland. As soon as he heard that his town had become part of Poland he got out, which is the reason I’m here to comment.

    • Yes, one can appreciate the beauty of the gray, but realize at some points it is necessary to see things in clear black and white. I emphasize here that it is important to cultivate the gray in everyday life of democracy, but to steadfastly oppose the clear enemies of democracy. That said, I am thankful for you and your family that your grandfather made a wise decision. though note the irony: it would seem that your luck concerns Nazi Germany and not Poland.

      • That was kind of my point – that we need black and white reasoning at some points, but then we might make the right decision for wrong reasons – which reinforces the shades of grey argument.

        On the issues of the day, we need to resist all attempts to destroy democracy – but if we fight each point with all powers available, we’ll become like Newt Gingrich, who gave us Trump. Or like Lula, as corrupt as the ones we criticize but with a prison sentence.

    • Che Guevara

      What about Poland? Just curious.

      • He didn’t like Poland, didn’t feel Polish, didn’t trust the Poles. Why? Was he right? It was a hundred years ago. Can’t ask him.

        I can’t believe I’m talking to Che Guevara!

        • Che Guevara

          Yeah, the rumors of my demise are greatly exaggerated.
          A hundred years ago Poland was a multi-ethnic country, made up of Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and Jews, and they all resented each other.

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