Saturday, May 3, 2008

You can't make this stuff up

Sorry, I cannot resist.
.... If the state legislates against sexual violence and abuse, as it must, it is because of the recognition that this is an area in which the liberty to make sense of or with one's own body is most often put at risk by predatory behaviour on the part of others.

So: equal liberty is at root inseparable from the equality of being embodied. Rights belong not to the person who can demonstrate capacity or rationality but to any organism that can be recognised as a human body, at any stage of its organic development. If the body cannot be property, it will always be carrying meanings or messages that are inalienably its own. And this opens up the second area in which aspects of Christian theology offer a foundation for a discourse of universal rights. Thus far, the emphasis has been upon the view from within, as it were – the body as carrier of the soul's meaning, the body as 'formed', given intelligible shape, by the continuing self called into being by God. But the process by which the body realises its communicative nature, by which it becomes concretely and actively a locus of meaning is a process in which the body receives and digests communication. The individual communicates meaningfully when s/he is decoding and responding to the meanings that are present to him or her; the full development of the particular body's freedom to communicate is realised in the process of understanding and managing and responding to the communications that are being received.

The human other is thus essential to my own growth as a communicative being, a bearer of meaningful messages that cannot be silenced; my own liberty not to be silenced, not to have my body reduced to someone else's instrument, is nourished by the equal liberty of the other not to be silenced. And, in the framework we have been using, this is identified as the central feature of the community created by the Christian gospel. Slave and owner are not merely bound to a common divine Master, they are bound in a relation of mutuality according to which each becomes the bearer of necessary gifts to the other. The relation of each to the Master is such that each is given some unique contribution to the common life, so that no one member of the community is able fully to realise their calling and their possibilities without every other. Not killing or not abusing the slave is for the slaveowner the necessary implication of recognising that the slave is going to be his or her benefactor in ways that may never be visible or obvious but are nonetheless vital.

The dignity accorded to the human other is not, then, a recognition that they may be better than they seem, but simply a recognition that what they have to say (welcome or unwelcome, intelligible or unintelligible, convergent or divergent) could in certain circumstances be the gift of God. Not every human other is a fellow-member of the Body of Christ in the biblical sense; but the universal command to preach the gospel to all prohibits any conclusion that this or that person is incapable of ever hearing and answering God's invitation, and therefore mandates an attitude of receptivity towards them. Not silencing the other or forcing their communication into your own agenda is part of remaining open to the communication of God – which may come even through the human other who is most repellent or opaque to sympathy. The recognition of a dignity that grounds the right to be heard is the recognition of my own need to receive as fully as I can what is being communicated to me by another being made by God. It compels that stepping back from control or manipulation of the other which we so often seek for our security, so as to hear what we cannot generate for ourselves. And it should be clear, incidentally. . . .
Archibishop Rowan Willams"Religious Faith and Human Rights" lecture.

So gang rape, beatings, torture, and smashing or slashing or exploding people to bits is all about silencing their communicative facilities, their liberty to make sense with their bodies, to code and decode, to speak and communicate with others? Am I missing something here? I'm a lawyer and a literature major and a great lover of words of all kinds, but golly, gee, isn't there more to life, not to mention eternity, than Saussure and semiotics?

I honestly do respect the desire and the effort to struggle to find what the Archbishop calls "robust language" for universal human rights, and I do not pretend I could do any better myself, but... It's not just the squirrely language, it's the impression that bodies and people and human suffering are abstractions, not real, bloody, messy, smelly, hurtful and hurting things, that disturbs me.


clumber said...

Not sure I understand all your words (thankfully Macs have a dictionary lookup thingy when you find a word you don't have a clue about!), but didn't we sort of know that this guy's level of abstraction was pretty darn high when we found out that he didn't know how to drive? That just sort of summed up his life for me.

I used to joke about some of the really bright people who I worked with, wondering how they ever managed to go down and buy tires for the car, but this guy is one step above that!

Thanks for the education (Saussure, indeed!).

klady said...

Well, even crazy me did not read Saussure for the fun of it. I had an upper level cross-disciplinary seminar on Structuralism (taught by a professor in the Religion Department -- terrific man, a Presbyterian, U of Chicago grad. who taught the courses on the Bible -- and a literature professor from the Russian Department) and then a required course from the English Dept. in Linguistics -- all circa 1975.

I'm sure I don't know half as much as Rowan Williams (and my memory's pretty foggy about what I used to know -- heck, it's been decades since I read very deeply in that stuff), it scares me when I half get what he's talking about. It's like being in a time warp. Even back when I was young and foolish and into all that stuff, I went to schools in Wisconsin where the professors all drank beer and most had some sense of reality. Same at law school, even among those all enchanted with the various new theories of justice, law, economics, etc. Play with words, yes, but take care not to take yourself too seriously or think that the right words necessarily point to the best (or any kind of) solution.

I'm having trouble imagining sharing a pint with Rowan. I'm sure he'd have just as much trouble sharing one with me.

Meanwhile, you've got to teach me more about physics and the insides of computers.

clumber said...

Okay, wanna build a computer? And my initial field of study was mathematics. I was dead meat if I had to write an essay!

Yup, having a pint with Rowan is not easy to visualize!

o-mom said...

Easy to get all philosophical about human suffering when you aren't knee deep in it. The good Fr. Williams ought take a roll of bandages and spend a week in a Darfur refuge camp and we'll see how philosophical he waxes at that point. When the folks are bleeding across the sea, it's easy to see the bigger issues. When they are bleeding on your carpet, then it really is your problem.

klady said...

Well, in all fairness, I don't imagine that the Archbishop is entirely ignorant of the suffering in Africa. I don't know about Darfur, but I believe he's traveled there in recent years and has spoken out about some of the conflicts.

The problem, as I see it, is the way he goes back and conceptualizes things philosophically. Williams is known to be especially wooly and opaque in his writing (and this seems to be an especially egregious example, even for him). To some extent I empathize, given his training and background. But it seems to me that at some point the substance of the words is going to get skewed if one habitually thinks of human rights in such terms. Rape, torture, murder, disease and death are what they are. To suggest that such gobbledy-gook might lead to "robust language" that everyone can agree on AND that such a reasoned agreement as to conceptual terms is going to stop the violence is... well, bonkers, if you ask me (which of course he didn't).

Similarly, the way he approaches the whole crisis in the Anglican Communion is about crafting words. As an academic, he seems to take on faith that if everyone honestly can agree to understand and adhere to the right words, then people will get along and treat each other with dignity and respect. Not only is that unrealistic, it takes the focus away from the real world problems the process supposedly addresses.

The great exemplar is the C of E's current policy on gay relationships among clergy (focus being on the men because they still haven't come to terms with women of any kind or sexual orientation). Gay clergy may enter into civil unions and also may even live with their partners (I think that's so), but only if they vow to be celibate. This way, one can supposedly respect the dignity of the persons involved, the faithfulness and love in their relationships, while not offending those who maintain that any sexual physical intimacy is sinful.

Now, no matter what one thinks of homosexual conduct or relationships, most everyone outside of the U.K. thinks this is insane. Although I suppose it is a more humane approach than the Vatican's, which is to treat every openly gay but celibate priest as a likely child molester (meanwhile while some are still trying to hide the real offenders), it's still awfully twisted. And the common problem, as I see it, between the gay policy and this human rights lecture is the distance between the words and the human reality they attempt to describe and govern. IMO.