The Ethics of Ambiguity: Recognition Revisited

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On overcoming small battles

In The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947), Simone de Beauvoir argues that in every relationship – whether it’s between friends, family or anyone else – there is always a distance between two people; a certain small battle and a certain instinct to deny each other as subjective beings that must be overcome time and time again if we really want to communicate. People are at once subject and object, and as a result their state of being is ambiguous and this makes life kind of crazy. She argues the subject has a natural urge to strive to validate its existence by separating itself from its environment and by determining that environment. In the case of people, following through on that urge entails objectifying them. In our minds we attach to our friend an adverb and suddenly they’re gone! We’ve transformed them into a label, a projection and an object.

This is sad. By reducing our friend to a more narrow definition we deny them the more sophisticated mirror that we could have been for them. In doing this we deprive not only our friend of a mirror and of recognition, but we also deprive ourselves: if we accept the assumption that you get recognition from your social environment, then it follows that by reducing that environment to simple words and objects you fog up all of your mirrors. And then nobody wins because everyone is under recognized, as a result of which more mutual misunderstanding, frustration and avoidable conflict occur, which is too bad.

Along with De Beauvoir (and Hegel, and in a way Sartre¹) I think that this is a really tragic and divisive process, but also that it’s one that you can overcome by actively and repeatedly granting the other their subjectivity – and in extension, their freedom of self-determination. The only way you can avoid the nasty choice between being objectified and having to objectify another is if both actors in a situation consciously say forget the small battle, you do you, I will respectfully try to understand you without impeaching upon your autonomy. This way mutual understanding is promoted and life becomes nicer for everyone all around. Which, I argue, is a good thing!

Long and overly theoretical exposition aside, the main point I want to make is that broadening our recognitional horizon is more often possible than we think, that it has benefits for everybody, and that as a society we’ve still got plenty work to do in this aspect. Sure, the amount of diverse representation in film and television is increasing, and Frances McDormand and Bruce Willis are still making great movies, but whether in politics or private life, misunderstanding is still promoted way too often. We often still tend to conflate debate, political or otherwise – such as with the refugee crisis – with simplifying the other person’s motive.

In On Liberty (1859) John Stuart Mill argues that if you really want to show the validity of your point you may as well actually grant your opponent their best argument. Because if you don’t, how can you possibly defend yourself in a satisfactory way? Otherwise you’re either arguing against an artificially weakened version of your opponent – in which case you can’t really ever win the actual argument – or you’re drowning them out altogether – which implies an unadmitted lack of real confidence in your own argument. You don’t have to agree with them, you just have to know what it is you’re disagreeing with.

The ideas that De Beauvoir and Mill posit have a lot of merit that I think we could really draw upon in contemporary debate and life in general, because the theories they offer are still relevant today on a political and societal level as well as on a personal and private one. By taking this into account and by choosing not to accept unnecessary small battles and distances, we stimulate a societal discourse that is both more communicative and more productive. And I argue that’s a good thing.

¹I should mention that Sartre doesn’t think overcoming this gap is possible. Then again, I don’t agree with Sartre.

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