A Response to Gary Peller

Gary Peller’s brilliant critique of my essay, “The Spiritual Dimension of Social Justice: Transforming the Legal Arena,” raises a very important theoretical question that has important practical consequences for social and political action—namely, How should we understand the relationship between the universal and the particular, between abstract ideas about the nature of social being and the concrete manifestations of social being in real historical context? Peller believes that I tend to apply abstract, universal ideas—in particular my claim that all human beings are animated by the desire for authentic mutual recognition and the desire to overcome the social alienation that blocks this recognition—in a way that may actually misunderstand historically embedded, particular social realities. In his own work—for example, in his recent superb book Race Consciousness—Peller sharply criticizes assimilationist, universalist approaches to race relations and civil rights struggles and argues for a Black Nationalist vision that can embody the actual emergence of collective black power and dignity against the other-directed accommodation to the integrationist abstract universality, or universal sameness of citizenship drawn from the dominant abstract individualist culture, that has weakened and undermined the self-recovery of those oppressed by the legacy of racism.

In my view, the true relationship of the universal to the particular can be stated as follows: First, we must grasp, out of our universality and collective human longing for a better, more loving world, the relationship between this universal longing we all actually do feel and our very social being—in this sense I say we all long to overcome an “otherness” to ourselves and each other that separates us by a fear-filled moat of mutual distance, and I describe this longing when I claim that we all desire authentic mutual recognition as a central aspect of our very social being, our very common humanity. But second, to understand how this desire is actually manifested in any particular historical situation, we must, by an act of critical intuition and knowledge of the total social context, throw ourselves forward into the place of a particular, historical person or group (and complex interrelationship of persons or groups) to apprehend how the universal desire for mutual recognition, and the denial of this desire and fear of the other, is manifested in tension in any real-world circumstance. Thus my claim is that the desire for mutual recognition is not an abstract universal, but a concrete universal manifested in all human situations as an expression of the very meaning of what it means to be a social human being, but that we can only understand how it is manifested in real history by the sociohistorical work of apprehending the full complexity of every unique situation.

Peller’s example of the argument with J. about cleaning the coffee pot is a good one, and I have no reason to disagree with Peller’s assessment of the particular historical factors comprising the totality of his relationship with J. that would be required for J. to actually experience his apology, and his recognition of her, as real. But I have another example from the present sociopolitical world that further sharpens how much Peller and I are in agreement rather than in opposition. At the present time on the left, there is a debate going on in various contexts about whether the better slogan to embody in a phrase the movement to address police violence against African Americans should be “Black Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter.” From Peller’s critique of my essay, it appears that he may think that I would support the “All Lives Matter” position because this supposedly expresses our universal brotherhood/sisterhood better than referring only to black lives. However, in fact I support “Black Lives Matter” because in the present particular historical moment, the upsurge of African American response to the particularity of the shootings of black men and children including Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice has galvanized the particular fusion of our collective struggle against historically embodied injustice that is the manifestation, at this particular moment, of the aspirations of our universal longing for and demand for a socially just world. “All Lives Matter,” by contrast, actually robs the moment of its particularity and concreteness and weakens the incarnation of the desire for true mutual recognition of our human dignity by covering it over with a bland universal abstraction. In this moment, the way to actually transmit that all lives matter is to say that black lives matter, to stand in solidarity with the black community that is the locus of resistance to the police violence—in the context of the legacy of racial oppression—that is a highly particularized manifestation of social alienation and social injustice. To state this in philosophical language, the human essence, the very nature of our social being, is universal and timeless, but the manifestation is infinitely particular. And then how do we know how to act in any particular situation, each of which is always unique? By immersing ourselves in the world enough, through the totality of our life and social activism and engagement, to translate the universal longing in our own heart, by an act of historical intuition, learned knowledge, and synthesizing judgment, into each particular historical situation as we experience it. Of course over the course of our lives, we must constantly correct for our initially overly abstract mistakes and sharpen and deepen our historical wisdom of how the universal essence that we are as social beings is particularized in each historical moment, and this will hopefully improve our ability to intervene successfully in the world so as to fundamentally heal and transform it.

So while I say that Peller and I are in my view more in agreement than his critique may suggest, Peller seems to reject the “universal essence” part of the above formulation—he would prefer that I just drop that part as being unnecessary to whatever accurate perceptions I may have about how social desire is in fact manifested in particular circumstances. But I think this leaves a hole is his own position—namely, how, on what basis, does he himself understand the particular moment? In my view, it is no answer to the risk of abstract universalism to say everything is particular, because this just leaves us floating in an infinite subjectivity or in particularities, unanchored to each other and to history itself by any uniting force that makes our historical collective effort intelligible, morally grounded, and supported by a moral direction. In truth, that uniting force really does exist at the beautiful loving heart of our common humanity, and that is why although the moral arc of the universe is painfully long, it really does bend toward justice.

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