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Making Room for Democracy

On the beauty of gray, the social condition, and individual and group responsibility

In my Friday posts, I have focused on the beauty of gray, presenting arguments for the good over the ideal and for openness to people and principles other than our own. I have argued, further, that these are preconditions for acting together against the dark forces of our times, and for positive alternatives to authoritarianism, market fundamentalism and xenophobia. Although I concede that all of this is predicated upon a sensibility that informs a set of judgments and commitments, I would like to start explaining here how this sensibility draws from and is a result of a critical sociology, centered on the systematic study of “the social condition.” I am moving forward from the suggestion I made when I started these gray postings.

We have published a series of posts on the social condition. I have taught a course on the subject, and I have been working on a paper with Iddo Tavory to give precise definition to the topic. He and I are convinced that there is an under-appreciated tradition of inquiry, “a third theoretical approach” to the social that needs to be explicitly identified and developed. We further judge that the study of the social condition will not only move forward the discipline of sociology, but also, and perhaps more importantly, provide an understanding of the social world that supports democracy at this time of crisis.

Tavory and I are continuing to work on this together, planning two different versions of our analysis: one addressing sociologists to be published in an academic journal, and the other addressing an interdisciplinary and more general public (to be published here). In both versions, we will highlight what we take to be the appropriate approach to the social condition:

1. Identifying tensions characteristic of social life.

2. Clarifying how these pose recurring dilemmas for individuals and groups of individuals.

3. Examining the various ways people work to solve dilemmas to get on with their lives.

The dilemmas, we maintain, are inevitably built into the social fabric, and people, as individuals and together with others, address the dilemmas without any assurance of the correct resolution. Existential decisions and politics respond to the dilemmas. Social science does not provide answers. To proceed otherwise is to confuse science for individual and social responsibility, and politics. The study of the social condition, as such, makes room for an understanding and appreciation of the importance of individual responsibility and democratic action.

Abortion is a serious issue, as Marianne Le Nabat put it here, “it is not like candy.” Fundamental human values are involved: freedom and life. When does the commitment to human life begin and freedom end? Recognizing the dilemma is a great advance, as Juniper Alcorn considers in her review essay “Defending Abortion without Rights.” Working through dimensions of the dilemma in a broad public forum, such as network TV, is noteworthy, as Emily Contreas examines here. How people wrestle with the complexity should be closely observed, even as we recognize there is no clear solution, beyond the responsible action of individuals and groups.

Freedom of speech includes fundamental tensions. The most basic concerns the freedom of a speaker who would silence or harm other speakers through the act of speaking. Michael Weinman appreciates this as he has reflected on recent controversies surrounding free speech at American colleges and universities from Milo Yiannopoulos, headlining of a Free Speech Week at Berkeley, to Marc Jongen, of the nationalist, anti-Euro (and EU) Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, as a major speaker at the Hannah Arendt Center of Bard College. Claire Potter reflected on the firing of Rosanne Barr at ABC, and the borderline between humor and hate speech. We are committed to free speech, fully aware that there are limits, and this doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as free speech, as Stanley Fish provocatively has put it. Rather, it means that the ideal of free speech poses dilemmas as my colleagues Potter and Weinman have explored, as have I.

And consider the idea of truth, and its relationship with politics, a most pressing issue if I am right that tyrannies of our times are best characterized as post-truth authoritarianism. I deeply appreciate Hannah Arendt’s “Truth and Politics.” I think she provides clear critical insights into the complex ways truth both supports and challenges free politics. She argues that factual truth provides the grounds upon which a sound politics is based, while philosophical truth can challenge politics. Yet, we, imprecisely and socially, establish facts and philosophic truth, and their relationships, with a great deal of ambiguity. Truth is socially constituted, but that doesn’t mean that it is not real. We struggle over the implications, with urgency in the present political environment.

I am tempted to go on. To suggest how a critically informed approach to the social condition illuminates problems concerning gender, sexuality, race, collective memory, civility, democracy, equality, individualism, liberalism, and the freedom of religion. These are topics I intend to analyze in the future. Yet, I realize that a more thorough accounting of the social condition is required to make clear how this is related to the gray sensibility and democracy. I hope to be able to publish that before the end of the month.

In the meanwhile, note the implications: an awareness of the social condition suggests responsibility of the sort I wrote about last week. As social actors, we are not cogs in a social machine, but subjects faced with choices of action, confronting dilemmas built into social life. We follow or don’t follow orders, and often improvise something in between. And politically, we do this together, in the examples I used in this post, working to solidify an understanding of factual truth and informed opinion, or not, against post-truth regimes, working together to defend free speech, as we understand that it is not an absolute, and defending freedom and life together as we engage in the tensions surrounding the issue of abortion.

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

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