Open for Debate

Normative Entanglement in Public Discourse (Part 3)

To recap:

In Part One of this series we looked at how our impulse to reduce messy situations to nice clean epistemological facts can cause us to miss what is at stake for people—the normative entanglements at issue.

In Part Two, we looked at how such normative entanglements show us what is going on in the politics of claiming, ‘I’m hurt.’ The famous 1995 Princess Diana interview shows us how ‘I’m hurt’ is often interpreted through a (false) dichotomy of options:  Accusation (I’m hurt because someone hurt me) and Admission (I’m hurt, as in, I’m broken, unstable, not whole).

Now we come to the final post of the series, where both pieces of the normative entanglement puzzle will be brought together. My aim here is to show the explanatory power of using the normative entanglement approach to assessing public discourse, by showing how it can help us parse some of the dynamics at play in conversations around gender and race.

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The polarity between Accusation and Admission shows up in sharp relief in Kate Manne’s work. In Down Girl, she set out to articulate the background logic of women’s ‘I’m hurt’ in a misogynist society.[1] The challenge in articulating this has always been that it’s difficult to effectively lay the charge at the feet of ‘men’, when #notallmen is such an easy dodge. If our impulse is to reach for isolated epistemic facts, then we can easily ignore the systems in play and point to one man who is kind, and another who has not directly advocated for the subjugation, and so on. Taken in isolation, against the sanitised backdrop of mere epistemology, it’s quite easy to build what looks like a solid case for claiming that ‘men’ are not the reason for the ‘We’re hurt’ claims of women.

I call this tactic epistemic whack-a-mole,[2] named for the classic fairground game in which motorised mole puppets periodically appear through an array of holes in a game board, and the player attempts to ‘whack’ down each mole before it disappears and turns up at another opening. The game is only interesting because the player cannot see the hidden mechanisms controlling the appearance of the moles at various holes. The mere epistemology tactic of #notallmen depends on a similar blind: if we look at each wounded voice in strict isolation, ignoring the normative entanglements which ground the grievance and call for acknowledgement, then each complaint can be whacked down, like a mole, with a flippant fact-grab: not this guy, not that guy, not all men.

But the point in examining misogyny, as Manne shows, is that regardless of who the charge falls on, the fact of the matter—what we epistemically know to be indubitably true, is that ‘we’ (in this case, women) are hurt, and are hurting. And if the ‘We’re hurt’ is going to motivate the kinds of normative adjustments called for—like the downed football player calls for a pause in play, or a penalty to be given—then we need to know at whose feet the charge of accusation should be laid.

The usual whack-a-mole logic says there are three options. 1. Accusation: all men are the problem—easily defeated by the mere epistemology move. 2. Admission: women are too weak/sensitive—a tired and disingenuous tactic. 3. Accusation, revised: it’s not all men, just a few weirdo creeps who are at fault. Option 3 is the default in public discourse for many at this stage. It allows the charge to fall at someone’s feet, whilst exempting ‘most’ men from the blame, resulting in a stable discourse. But one of the problems with this option is that, as Manne argues, it conceals from view the normative context in which such harms take place, and blocks the ‘I’m hurt’ from making the kinds of normative changes we need it to make in terms of calling for men—all men—to participate in changing the systems of misogyny which drive such harms.

The same is true of racial discourse. When Colin Kapernick took a knee during the national anthem in protest of police brutality against Black people, he was saying ‘We’re hurt.’ He gave his charge focus, by directing it not toward an entire race or toward a few vicious individuals, but toward a clear class of people with a certain kind of institutional role (policing), where injustice exists not only as a matter of how (at least some) officers act but also as a matter of a complex set of institutional and structural racial injustices.

Kapernick made use of the same polarity which Diana was resisting in the Panorama interview. She fought hard to avoid making direct accusations of anyone in particular or of the institution of the monarchy as a whole, whilst also fighting hard to keep the accusatory charge from landing back at her own feet. It seems to me that what was so effective—and so remarkably inflammatory, in the best sense—about Kapernick’s protest and those like it, is that his ‘We’re hurt’ was a clear accusation, with a specified accused party. It was the right kind of party for the charge to stick to (police and policing), using a posture that blocked the charge from returning home—using a nonviolent pose.

So often, accusations of racially-driven police brutality can be easily dodged on one side or the other of the polarity. Either the charge is sent back to the accuser (‘I felt threatened and thought he had a gun’ relocates the charge of violence to the Black person and claims the officer’s entitlement to use violence in self-defense) or it is diffused in the insidious gulf between individual and institutional responsibility (‘not all cops’, and so on). Instead, what happens here is that the charge gets laid at the feet of an institution, American policing, and its constituent members. This is a stable form of accusation, in that the charge stays put. It still elicits the whack-a-mole response of appealing to isolated epistemic facts: this officer is decent, or that Black person has a history of violent behaviour. But what we have seen in the last few years is that laying the charge at the feet of racialised brutality in policing has defined the scope of the whack-a-mole game that makes it much, much harder to win.

With each additional instance of bodycam and bystander video footage of police brutality towards Black people, it is increasingly evident that, whatever the nature of the relationship might be between the institution of policing and the individuals who carry it out, there is a problem in the institution. The ‘we’re hurt’ claim against racialised police brutality enacts a change to the normative context, placing an obligation on those bound up with the institution to put a stop to and offer restitution for systemic brutality.

The charge is laid, and the standard evasion strategies are growing more implausible with each passing year. The obligation is beginning to get recognition at higher institutional levels, and while an adequate response appears to still be a long way off, we can see more clearly than ever what is at stake—the normative entanglements and who they attach to—in the discourse of protest.

[1] Manne, Kate. Down Girl: the logic of misogyny. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018.

[2] Notess, S. (2021). ‘Listening and Normative Entanglement: A Pragmatic Foundation for Conversational Ethics’. Durham University.

Photo via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Black_Lives_Matter_Mural_San_Francisco_02.jpg

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