Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On What Ought To Be Offensive

About this time last year, when he found that the prospect of being shouted at by a grumpy Irishman whilst playing for a side likely to get relegated in a town not known for its cosmopolitan lifestyle was not as attractive as he'd like to professional footballers, Roy Keane complained about the influence of players' wives and girlfriends over their career choices. He called men 'soft' and 'weak' for taking into consideration the happiness of their partners when choosing where and for whom exactly to work, and allegedly consequently deciding that, on balance, Roy Keane's Sunderland didn't seem like quite the right place to be. Now, there are presumably a number of things to be said about the politics of that statement: there surely has to be some buck-passing going on somewhere, since I doubt as a matter of fact that professional footballers would not drag their wives and girlfriends with them to Sunderland if they really wanted to go. Exactly who is lying to whom about what is not clear, but I would be genuinely surprised if the whole truth is being revealed by Keane.

There's also the recurrence of the stereotyped of the hen-pecked man, who just wants to live a life of honest toil, determinedly living out the virtues of his chosen profession - which of course as far as Keane is concerned is exactly the sort of vindictive, entitlement-driven ambition you'd expect from one of Alex Ferguson's lieutenants - whose shrew of a wife drives him into some form or other of moral turpitude. It's only in that sort of understanding of the relationship between men and their wives or girlfriends - where what the woman wants is the wrong thing for the man and often just plain wrong - that Keane's comment makes sense: it rests on the denial of a unity of interests between a pair of lovers, or at least a unity of interests where both partners have an input. What was particularly shocking about it was that the standard defence of footballers produced in response to Keane, where they were defended, seems to have been the denial that they paid any attention at all to the desires of their partners. Of course the man properly gets to decide where a couple live, was the response: the question was whether footballers were being bullied by their domineering wives into staying in London, presumably in between beating back the hordes of nubile young things offering themselves up for various sordid goings on in hotel rooms.

This didn't just extend to sportswriters, whom you might not expect to be particularly enlightened, but apparently to moral philosophers, one of whom I saw arguing in favour of Keane's position. Even without considering the transparent sexism of Keane's claim, it's so profoundly illiberal: it is not for you, footballer, to make decisions about whether your career or your lover's happiness is more important, but for me, Roy Keane, to attempt to strip you at least some of your dignity if you do not weight them in exactly the way I prefer, which happens to be the way which benefits me. That seems such a tin-eared judgment to me I'm now rather sceptical about any first-order normative judgment the person in question makess, because if they can't be trusted to see that you shouldn't automatically sacrifice what your partner wants in order to further your career, then they can't be trusted to see anything whatsoever. They've all the moral judgment of Roy Keane, and he deliberately broke a man's leg, destroying his career in the process (actually, apparently Keane didn't cause the career-ending injury Haaland suffered: see the entry for 14.05.01 here; not that that makes having the same moral judgment as Keane any better).

There are other ways in which someone can make me sceptical about their ability to make basic moral judgments. I recently encountered a Labour party member, another graduate student in political theory, who, when defending pieces of etiquette strike me as forms of delineating and excluding people from various forms of privilege, was prepared to deny that class had anything to do with what counts as polite. That kind of blindness to the way in which power relations structure and run through social life is frankly bizarre on the academic left, as if despite having studied politics for years, no-one had ever raised the question of systematic injustice, as if it were just a question of technocratic tinkering around the edges; as if Marx didn't exist. They did seem to be a party loyalist, I suppose, but to lack a sense of the way in which a social system structures opportunity differentially and yet be a member of the Labour party; incomprehensible for a political theorist. It's the same kind of error that I thought Peter made here: of course chav and toff shouldn't be as offensive as each other, because you want to have a derogatory term to describe the beneficiaries of injustice whereas you don't want one to describe those who bear its costs. You don't stigmatise people who have already been treated unfairly, whereas of course you ought to be able to stigmatise those who have gained from that unfair treatment.

Peter seemed to think this was stepping beyond the proper realms of the political, engaging in a class politics which cannot help but exclude some from its ambit and so deny them the explanation of its attempt to gain the state's coercive power that politics properly owes them. He's right about the class politics, but wrong about its exclusivity. Public reason is often thought to embroil its advocates in the problems of trying to justify the institutions of a democratic state from within various profoundly illiberal world-views, but as Burton Dreben said, you don't talk to Hitler, you shoot him. The point about public reason is that it is structured by the idea of a public, a citizenry with certain moral properties to whom a justification is owed made up of all those who live their lives under the coercive power of the state, and, in a certain sense, to be profoundly illiberal is simply to deny that; to deny that women, gays, blacks, the poor, suffer under the burdens of the coercive power of the state in the same as men, straights, whites, or the rich do. Anyone who can't see that a society as marked as ours is by class and other hierarchies must fail to offer an adequate justification of its coercive power to those at the bottom of those hierarchies is in effect denying that those at the bottom of those hierarchies are not owed a justification; they have stepped outside the bounds of public reason. As such, they are no longer owed a justification in the same way: although you don't have to shoot them, you certainly don't have to talk to them.

2 comments:

Ben said...

"it is not for you, footballer, to make decisions about whether your career or your lover's happiness is more important, but for me, Roy Keane, to attempt to strip you at least some of your dignity if you do not weight them in exactly the way I prefer, which happens to be the way which benefits me"

But was Keane in any way proposing to actually make these choices for them, or merely exercising his right to put his view across? Surely I can let you choose as you will, but voice my belief that your choice is misguided?

Rob Jubb said...

If Keane were just saying that the choice was misguided, you'd've expected his criticisms to be less explicitly moralised: you don't call someone 'weak' and 'soft' or say that what they're doing is 'wrong' if you think they've just done differently from what you've done. The background to his comments is clearly a conception of what it is to be a footballer in which it's just a job, something you do because you enjoy it and it's well-paid, is unacceptable: you have to have the same kind of burning ambition as Keane, or else you shouldn't bother. It's not the thought, I don't get people who don't have that kind of ambition, it's the thought, everyone who doesn't have that kind of ambition can piss right off. And that is illiberal, at least in a comprehensive sense - but then this isn't a political problem, in the Rawlsian sense.