Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Summer is coming...

For any of you that have read George R.R. Martin's ongoing series (or watched the TV spin off), the title of today's post might have made you chuckle. "Winter is coming" is the motto of the Starks, one of the families Martin's series follows, and the idea of the oncoming Winter as both metaphor and very harsh reality is practically omnipresent in the books. Without wanting to give too much away about the series' sweeping and complex plot, in the world in which these books take place, seasons do not last for a set amount of time.  One never knows ahead of time how long a Winter or Summer (or Fall or Spring for that matter) will last--and the Winter holds a cruel promise of deprivation, want, desperation, madness, and the threat of violence of an even worse sort. Martin's world is grim, and only becomes grimmer as the Winter comes closer. "Winter is coming" becomes then a phrase to remind those who hear it that the worst is yet to come, that those who are ill-prepared won't stand a chance, and that many who are well prepared might not make it, but had better try anyway.

Yet I write "Summer is coming". Indeed, in one sense Summer is already here, and has been for several days. Children are ending their school year and the long weekend that marks Summer's opening for many people is just ahead of us. Of course I am not speaking only of our calendar Summer when I chose to bring it up here. Rather, I am speaking of Summer as a time of plenty, of blossoming, of freedom and relaxation and playfulness; a time of growth and bonding. I am using Summer here as a metaphor for social flourishing and a just world.

By now you may be thinking, "Allyson, you must be delusional! Look at the world around you; it seems on the brink of chaos. There's injustice everywhere, and environmental disasters, and civil wars, and governments cracking down on their own citizens, and possible economic collapse--how can you possibly think Summer is coming? If ever the Stark motto fit, now would be the time!" The funny thing is, a large part of me would agree with you, if that is what you're thinking. We do seem to be heading into leaner and rougher times. But that's precisely why I say, "Summer is coming."  I am a cyclical thinker, and the truth is that if Summer is coming, so is Winter. In fact, if Summer is "coming", it's likely that we're standing in Winter right now. And, just like in Martin's novels, we don't know how long this Winter is likely to be.

I raise this point because in the many necessary preparations for all the harsh facts of our present and projected future social, political, and environmental climate, I sometimes wonder if preparing for the possibility of "better days" is necessary too. I am hardly advocating we all put on rose-coloured glasses and ignore our present crises. Swift and wise action is needed to combat the environmental damage we have already done and continue to do. The level of suffering, poverty and violence around the globe needs to be lowered (eradicated would be even better, but that would take a transformation I at least can't forsee.) Our metaphorical Winter in all its harshness must be lived in and responded to, lest the life-and-soul draining forces of Winter run roughshod over us due to our own lack of preparation, and even our own actions in bringing the Winter here. But while we do this, should we not also be trying to think in terms of preparing structures that call forth flourishing--to think about justice and prepare for justice not just as a negative (fighting against injustices) way, but also in terms of a positive this is what justice and social flourishing might look like for these issues or contexts. In one of the comments on last week's post, Jared said we need to be "giving back to the creation what it needs to flourish once again". I think this is good insight, insofar as it is possible for us to do so. In at least some very significant ways, we, humans, are responsible for having called this harsh "Winter" into reality. If we were to be able to give back to creation what it needs to flourish again, could we not do the inverse and begin to call a "Summer" full of life and health into reality?

Of course, such a seasonal change is not going to happen overnight--if it happens at all. I admit in fact that I myself tend more toward the "Winter is coming" mentality, and that proclaiming or calling for the coming of Summer is for me more an act of spiritual discipline than it is a present understanding. But as a spiritual discipline it is something I believe may constitute a "calling" proper: a practice that is at the same time a vocation--and once which perhaps we are all called to, in different ways. In order to try to bring that Summer into reality, I try to balance the work I undertake against injustice with work that positively envisions and works for justice as the normal state of being. The question is then, what can we do (along with fighting the environmental, social and political injustices already here) to structure justice into our lives and actions? Is it a matter of writing better policy? Of putting new laws in place? Of changing the hearts and minds of individuals or changing the practices of corporations? Or do we perhaps need better theory behind our actions? Do we need to define what a right is, and whether (for example) the earth itself has "rights"? How can we decide this, on a global scale--who do we need to get talking to each other? How can we bring different groups together to the proverbial "table" and help them listen and learn from each other, working together for justice?

The seasons of Spring and Fall, metaphorically speaking, have always seemed to me to be times of people going their separate ways and being more focused on their own small groups, such as families. The proverbial crops need to be planted in Spring and harvested in the Fall, and those are times when one tends to one's own business, so to speak. Summer and Winter have a different metaphorical feel. In a harsh Winter, people pull together for warmth and to share scarce resources to ensure mutual survival. Desperate circumstances can make partners out of unlikely groups. Likewise in Summer people come together, but now to celebrate and bond. Festivities can also bring out unlikely partnerships, as people and groups find they had more in common than they thought and are more oriented toward a spirit of hope or joy. Given that we appear to be standing facing a long hard Winter, and given our (hopeful) orientation toward working for the coming of Summer, how can we pull together, and what particular issues should we be working on for creating positive accounts of what justice looks like? My plan in posing this question is to get a sense of what people believe are the pressing issues to be addressed, and then open a series of posts on some of those particular issues, with a view for discussing positive constructions of justice within them. I've thrown out the question of "environmental/earth rights" for discussion here. What say you?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Public Space, Hate Groups, and the Practice of Re-naming


Due to the nature of some of the comments received when this reflection on "Public Space, Hate Groups and the Practice of Re-naming" was originally posted, it was temporarily taken down while the moderator clarified the comment policy. The clarified policy and the original post are now included here below. Thank you for your patience!

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The story I'm picking up on today isn't local to where the Centre for Philosophy, Religion and Social Ethics is geographically situated (in Toronto), but it is an important one that applies in many ways across borders and in many locales. What do you do when a group known for hate and even violence wants to do its "civic duty" and involve itself in activities typically seen as being for the public good? If a hate group, for example, wanted to participate in a governmentally-sponsored program to pick up litter in public areas, should they be allowed to do so under the name of their group or is that just giving them the chance to look better in the public eye, possibly recruiting more members who may not otherwise have joined because of the stigma?

This is precisely the question Union County, Georgia is facing. A local chapter of the Klu Klux Klan has applied there to participate in the "Adopt a Highway" program, which is meant to empower groups of volunteers to help clean up litter and debris that accumulates along sections of public roads. The federal courts have already ruled in another similar case, where a KKK chapter applied to adopt a highway and was refused, that they must be allowed to participate if they want to. (Incidentally, as the article I linked to above discusses, in that case the county responded by allowing the chapter to proceed as the court directed, but also re-named that section of the road after civil rights activist Rosa Parks. Eventually the county also argued the group was not picking up the litter as promised, and so revoked the application.)

It goes without saying that the KKK has a history of racism and violence, and despite some members insisting the group is not racist today, it is still on the Southern Poverty Law Center's list of Hate Groups. Certainly that is the perspective of this author as well. And so, what is the/a socially ethical response to this situation? I raise this question not mainly for an immediate and practical decision of "yes, let them pick up the litter" or "no, they should be refused because hate groups have no place in the public sphere" but rather to raise the larger question of how to navigate relations in the public sphere. In a society that is structured to be both pluralist and democratic, how do we deal with groups that benefit from that democratic pluralism while denying its legitimacy?

Let me backtrack just a moment. On a trip to Detroit visiting relatives a while ago, I was standing outside the Downtown Detroit Greyhound bus station waiting for my ride to arrive when a city bus pulled up. Out of habit I glanced at the bus route name on its front and did a double-take. Emblazoned there, on a city bus, was "Rosa Parks Boulevard". I was deeply emotionally struck at the wonderful irony of having a city bus route bearing the name of the woman known for being arrested after refusing to give up her bus seat to racial segregation, albeit in a different city. Later during the visit I mentioned what I had seen to my mother, who has lived in the area around Detroit most of her life, and she told me that part of that bus's route went along the street where Detroit's 1967 race riots began (12th Street), and that the street had been re-named quite some time ago in the 70's precisely due to its connection with the riots. I knew about the riots, of course, but had not realized what street they had begun on, and though I had already known for years that there was a Rosa Parks Boulevard in Detroit (and had driven on it), it was the wonder of seeing her name on a bus that struck me.

The 1967 Detroit race riots were among the most violent in U.S. history, and re-naming the street where they began after a woman who was a vital part of the civil rights movement was at the same time an important act of remembering and an act of hope for societal re-organization toward justice. Reading the current story about the KKK chapter wanting to participate in the Adopt-a-Highway program, and the previous county's decision to re-name the section of street they wanted to clean after Rosa Parks as well, something struck me about the re-organizational power of re-naming a space. Reflecting on that, I began to look at what kind of responses are possible within the public space to groups that promote hate and groups that deny the legitimacy of democratic pluralism in general. Certainly there are ways to work within the structure of democratic pluralism and still limit the reach of such groups and their power. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms gives guidance for this in the Canadian context and there are similar structures in place in the U.S. and elsewhere. But in addition to these important legal frameworks that define things such as "hate crime", for example, can we not also look at bearing witness in other ways? Can we call on the name of heroes such as Rosa Parks as our "patron saints" of social justice?  Can this be an additional and powerful way of countering the "message" hate groups promote, and can it be a way of saying (and hopefully then following through on) "we will not back down on the ideal of democratic pluralism but neither will we back down on the ideal of social justice. We will hold you and everyone accountable to these ideals."? I mentioned that such an act of re-naming is in part an act of hope. As an act of hope it is by definition aimed at possibilities, not present actuality. Just how powerful a tool of transformation can that hope be, and if we were to do a similar thing in Canadian context today, what might it look like?