Friday, June 15, 2012

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

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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?


  1. I'll summarize my prior responses with the example of Paul. I believe his story shows us that even the most despicable elements of our society can undergo complete turn-arounds and become workers for the salvation of society. As a Christian I would hold out the same redemptive possibility for the KKK as was proven of Paul, and suggest that the path to redemption for such a hate group is a conversion from hate to charity.

    To the larger question then about how to deal with hate groups that benefit from democratic pluralism while denying its legitimacy, I think we have to trust our ability to discern good from evil. If our wisdom tells us that the group is taking advantage of our democratic embrace and faking charity for personal gain (that is, if it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing) then there must be correction. Nevertheless we have to hope and trust, which I believe fits nicely with your suggestion that we “not back down on the ideal of democratic pluralism [or] on the ideal of social justice.”

    As for renaming it is interesting and instructive that Paul too takes on a new name. He transforms from Saul to Paul (or from ‘king’ to ‘servant’). But in this case the renaming happens WITH the transformation, while you seem to be suggesting, Allyson, that we rename in the hope of DRIVING transformation... I think there is a meaningful difference here, in that there is something important about calling a spade a spade, and not calling something what we want it to be until it has actually become it. Until transformation occurs we should call things what they are. (If we rename too early what we risk getting is wolves in sheep’s clothing, which is, I believe, precisely your concern with the KKK involving itself in charity...)

  2. I take your point about calling a spade a spade, Jared, and I think it's important to do that. I don't think that the re-naming being described here is done to drive transformation, though--at least not directly, and not in the way that we'd be calling a spade a diamond. I guess what I'm saying is that it's the road that was re-named, not the group itself. The re-naming here was done to force the KKK chapter to be confronted by the a voice and face of social justice and constantly have that reminder in their (and everyone's)face. It would be different if someone tried to re-name the local chapter of that KKK group "the Rosa Parks society" or something along those lines. Such an instance of re-naming would just be a mask for injustice instead of a means of confronting it.

    Having said that, I think you raise a very important point about re-naming practices, and raise it clearly. Just re-naming something is not in and of itself a good or appropriate activity. There is a lot more that goes into the practice of re-naming in order for it to work for justice.

  3. I have a slightly different sense of your intent, Allyson. It seems to me that the renaming of the highway to be adopted both affirms the possibility of participation within a framework of good citizenship and acknowledges that the group in question does have a past in which good citizenship was not evident: its participation in resisting the struggle for civil rights for people of colour in the US. The renaming sets as a condition for good citizenship publically acknowledged a context in which to take on a publically acknowledged good citizenship is to acknowledge past failing or rather to recognize that to take on this citizenship to is do so beyond past resistence to civil rights, that is in a manner that formally works at crossed purposes with that older and darker intent. To take up the posture of good citizenship that adopting a highway represents will have to mean working to beautify Rosa Parks highway, to burnish her memory and the civil rights struggle she catalyzed. All such public theatre works as it must from the outside in. I am sure those that dreamed up this renaming had no doubt that the project they were presenting via the renaming would be resented by those being offered it. But to take it up so transformed is to start in a small and perhaps ineffective way to take on the burden of transformed habits. Working from the outside it is the way of all monasticism, of all spiritual disciplines; it is the way of incarnation, so it has a lot of accumulated wisdom and experience going for it, what Jamie Smith call the liturgy of our bodily lives. Who knows what long years of beautifying Rosa Park's memory might do for the lucky adopters?

    1. Who knows indeed, and there's always room for hope! Long years of beautifying Rosa Park's memory may work to transform habits. And I like the notion you bring up (via Jamie Smith's work) of the liturgy of our bodily lives. What our bodies physically do can have a great impact on our thoughts and habits and even our general orientation.

  4. Hi Allyson, I know you were talking about renaming the road, not the hate group. I suppose I saw them as being one of a kind, with the hate group being a more extreme example. For example, with the road in Detroit, you have the violent uprising of the race riots taking place on a road that is then renamed after an American patron of peaceful uprising, which struck me as a bit of a cover-up of the fact that no such peaceful uprising ever took place on that road (could be wrong on that; I'm not up on my Detroit city history!). As such, the renaming of the road may give a false impression and hide the violent rage against injustice that is still simmering under the surface of the road's peace-invoking name and that could be re-sparked at any time. I do hear you though and understand the potential of such a renaming. I guess it just brings us back to how complicated these matters are.

    1. Your concern of the potential for a "cover up" is a good one, Jared. I think that potential definitely exists, particularly if a re-naming gives a false impression of what is still "going on" in a space. I suppose much of whether it functions as a cover up or as a "memorial" to call the space and relations around it to account depends on the context in which the re-naming takes place, who proposes the re-naming, why they proposed it, and how it is received by those around the re-named space--in this case, how it fits in with the narrative of what happened during the riots and what happened afterwards. Rosa Parks is an interesting choice for re-naming because while she herself was "peace-invoking", what she stood up for was at least in part what sparked a movement that was met with sometimes very violent reactions. She became an icon for the Civil Rights Movement, and while societal peace based on justice and equality was one goal of that movement, the movement itself faced a great deal of violence. In some ways, naming the street after Rosa Parks invokes both that hope for eventual peace, justice and equality hand-in-hand, but it also evokes the dire struggle undertaken to pursue those goals--some of which struggle, it could be argued, took place on 12th street.

      Your comments point out an important tension, though--like you said, it just brings us back to how complicated these matters are. Thank you!

    2. Would it be helpful to make a distinction between the commitment to justice and the orientation toward social justice and the strategic and tactical implications of such commitments in concreto? I think justice is not really complicated at all. At bottom, one could say it is giving to each its, his or her due. Within the context of an ambivalent and often unjust world that translates into a living to support the vulnerable (in the language of the Bible, the widow, the orphan and the stranger). At this level, there is nothing complicated about justice at all and that is a good thing to remember when we move from basic orientation to issues of strategy and tactics in which complications without number set in. Isn't the question always and only: how do we give to each its, his or her due, or in human terms how do we lift up in support the "widow, the orphan and the stranger"? Does this tactic or that, this strategy or that, in fact, constitute an instance of our commitment to justice? Is it the best instance in the present circumstances?--is also a question that might be asked and that is where a legitimate conversation can and must break out, but only after we are pretty sure that we are talking about the one and another instance of action in service of the vulnerable out of a commitment to justice, to giving to each their due. Does that advance the discussion?

    3. I think you both make some great points. To pick up on one of yours Bob, I too feel that justice is simple. As you say, it may get difficult as we work it out in concrete situations but there is nothing inherently complicated about it. I'm also quite amenable to your definition. Especially the first part where you say that justice is giving what is due. It is with this simple definition that the complications start to arise, at least for me. Most notably, how do we know or find out what is due? Is it a matter of rights? Is it a matter of deserts? Is it a matter of need? Is it a matter based on any number of factors that only a wise judgment can decide? This leads me to wonder about the second part of your definition, that justice is supporting the vulnerable. Why is support due to the vulnerable? Is it because the distributions of justice are based upon need? Is it because there is wisdom in supporting the vulnerable? ... I’m also wondering if supporting the vulnerable is not a matter of justice at all but charity, which unlike justice gives even when nothing is due. For a long time now I’ve had a suspicion that justice, though important, is trumped by other concerns. By charity for instance, which sometimes, in addition to giving when nothing is due, can also involve NOT giving what is due, especially in the case of forgiveness. But then again, if justice is giving what is due, and what is due is a matter of wise judgment, then perhaps forgiveness is precisely what is due in such cases, and charity and justice coincide.

      But now I’m probably just complicating things! If I’ve clarified anything hopefully it's the distinction that you made Bob between justice and the strategies and tactics that we employ to achieve it. The problem is in the latter, which I think we all would agree calls for wise judgment or the search for wisdom.

    4. I'll bite. What is due is in the abstract what each creature needs in order to flourish. The only way such a notion makes sense is in an understanding of the world that starts not from scarcity but from abundance. If the world contains within it the resources that allow for universal flourishing why then every concrete instance of languishing is a natural sign of injustice. The sort of vulnerability that is marked out by the biblical triad of the widow, the orphan and the stranger is not a matter of flourishing but of languishing in squalor and suspicion. The presence of the widow, the orphan and the stranger in societies in which they are left to languish in squalor and looked upon with suspicion is a natural sign of embedded injustice. To work for justice is to work to create conditions in which widows, orphans and strangers too can live beyond squalor and suspicion. All of this seems deeply present in Torah as given in the O.T. and as fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. If Woltertorff was to be believed in his public lecture in the context of ICS's Human Rights conference, justice and charity do or ought to coincide in a biblical way of viewing them. Rights mark what is due us or them. To actually receive what is due is to receive our just deserts though sometimes we get deserts we had no right to or it was not right that we got. Finally, need to can be mapped onto due for all creatures are due what allows them to flourish. Of course, all of this only kicks the can a bit further down the road for how can every creature get its due if the standard is flourishing. Isn't the wolf's flourishing opposed to the lamb's and so forth? Kierkegaard, Levinas and Derrida begin to smile at this point. Complications ensue. Still, we get a little ways nevertheless, or so I hope.

    5. Thank-you for biting Bob! I like what you say very much. I also think Genesis 2-3 shows quite nicely a transition from abundance to scarcity and withholding what is due. Adam and Eve withhold their 'goods' (or naked forms); the earth no longer yields its life-giving fruit without a fight; even unborn children resist their own births. The fall marks our entry into an era where charitable self-giving, and as a result justice, can be hard to come by. It is an era of mutual distrust and self-interest. And maybe this makes sense, for as you say there is a complication: how on earth can the wolf and the lamb both receive what is due? Doesn't someone have to pay the price? I want to say that this is where the Christian emphasis on resurrection comes in. If the lamb lives again then its flourishing is not necessarily impeded by its being eaten. But then again, this would be an awfully convenient situation for the wolf, and a hard pill to swallow for the lamb! (Another spectre of Marx?)

    6. I wonder if Genesis 2-3 does show a move from abundance to scarcity? It shows our human reorientation from the abundance of the creation to a sense of human vulnerability in the creation, to be sure. But I would suggest that it is still a step or two down the road to get to an assumption that the world does not produce enough for all and therefore that some must live with less than they want or even need. By the time one has got there society has been formed in ways that mirror that assumption such that social experience and founding assumption reenforce each other and so come to seem the product of nature herself. But I wonder if that mirroring isn't itself a mark of our human alienation from the creation or nature and its perduring abundance?

    7. I hear you Bob. To clarify my reading I would say that there is no change in the potency of the creation in Genesis 2-3 but there is a change in the creation's willingness to yield its bounty to humankind. The result is a reduction in productivity which sets the conditions for a future of scarcity and injustice.

      I also think you're absolutely right that after generations of hardship there would start to prevail the assumption that this is just the way things are. It would become common belief that some people simply have to do without and that there simply isn't enough to go around. As a people we need to reconnect with the true power of the creation to support our prosperity as a people.

      I also think, however, (and I'm certain this is on your mind as well) that the creation can be exhausted, and that we're on the verge of exhausting it right now. In such a time it might not be right to emphasize the perduring abundance of the creation but rather its vulnerability and limit state. As a people we should be focusing on being satisfied with years of restrained growth and giving back to the creation what it needs to flourish once again. (A message that unfortunately seems lost on our federal government!)

  5. Jared, I do think a key is the world-wide loss of the topsoil that grew things for the peasant class, a topsoil which had paid off the peasant head of household of his farming-family of tenants/ he/she paid the rent, the dues at harvest time. The peasant paid harvest dues to the landlord. But in the era of the industrial revolution (still going on great guns! in "Communist" China. But now: Gone is the topsoil in so many places; gone is the class that worked toward that annual harvest yielded by the nutritious soil that peasant families worked, whether tenants or yeoman (free holders, yet peasants — a class that Marx despised, but Mao embraced while trying to build a proletariat of "wage slaves" from persons propelled or compelled to leave the soil and the land for the distant city and its rim of factories. The class decomposition of the peasant class worldwide, and the re-composition of class relations in the favelas and barrios of the garbage-dump workers and their slum dwellings.



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