Today I had the pleasure of reading the transcription of the Chomsky-Foucault debate on Human Nature:
Noam Chomsky, the founder of modern linguistics and socio-political commentator, engaged in an informal discussion/debate with French Postmodernist/Post-Structuralist philosopher Michel Foucault on Dutch television, loosely engaging with the notion of human nature. Chomsky on the affirmative, Foucault on the negative.
Chomsky, who pioneered the notion of “Universal Grammar,” a theoretical, universal syntactical structure based on neurobiology, argues that a “Human Nature” is possible. Foucault, who is best known for his [creative, but not very accurate] histories of societal functions, especially around things like madness, sex, prisons, and gender roles, argues that any discussion of human nature is a product of a current discourse, and trying to find a human nature in science is a non-starter.
Trying to say who “won” the debate is difficult, because the two of them seem like they are talking past each other. This becomes most apparent when the discussion of Human Nature shifts to a question of Justice. Chomsky wants to suggest that a universal human nature opens the doors for a normative sense of justice (that is, protestors are justified in their civil disobedience because they are fighting for a better society). Foucault rejects this, and asserts that revolutions are fought by those who want power, and all notions of justice are contingent on the ideologies of the groups at play, without anything “backing them up.” Chomsky is horrified at this notion, and maintains that a proletariate group that seeks power, but not the sort of normative, universal justice, is not defensible.
I think about this notion a lot, especially as my generation is especially interested in the discourse around oppression and identity. For years, a major complaint right-wingers had against leftists in the United States was how they allegedly lacked morals and tried too hard to be non-judgmental. Conservatives, so the assessment went, were the ones with a solid understanding of Right vs. Wrong. Without religion/tradition, how could these Left-wingers have any moral backbone?
What is funny about this is how Leftists coming out of the tradition of identity politics (Feminism, Race Theorists, Queer Theorists, and so forth), are very moralistic. I am certain they would not enjoy that diagnosis, but it’s true: identity politics makes very clear what sort of activities are permissible, and which are verboten. The terms used are often how such-and-such is problematic, or how this-and-that is oppressive, but make no mistake, these entire project of Identity Politics rests on the notion that morality is normative, that is to say, the way we ought to live our lives is not a matter of opinion or taste.
Foucault describes himself as a descendent of Nietzsche, the great German philosopher. Nietzsche argued that morality is an invention of the oppressed (powerless) class to explain their situation and imagine an imperative to overcome whoever is in power. There is nothing that actually makes the morality of Jesus any more definitive or “right” than the morality of Stalin. He would argue that we ought to aim to be “Great,” in the way Greeks imagined their gods, than meek-and-mild like Jesus.
This is a real question for Feminists, Black Lives Matter activists, Anti-Colonialists, Queer Activists, and so forth, to take seriously the idea of morality. Otherwise, are we nothing more than just a small group wanting power for its own sake? As much as we talk about oppression, why not join the oppressor?
I am a hedonic utilitarian; all higher-level ethics supervene on the axiom that pleasure is good, and pain is bad. By this, I can extrapolate that, in any case where a group that has a lot of power is in conflict with a group that has very little power, the latter group is generally the one that deserves my support. But there certainly are money-wrenches in the equation that seem to support what Foucault was saying: Zimbabwe’s change of power has been horrible, as was Iran and Uganda. What are we to make of Israel? Pakistan? How about the racist, sexist, xenophobic trends in labor history? Or the irredeemable transphobia in Second-Wave feminism?
There are plenty of oppressed groups who finally gained power, only to turn around and become oppressors themselves. And this is where I want to probe all “Anti-Oppression” groups: If your resistance to oppression can be paraphrased as an scramble for power, with no accompanying moral imperative, than why should I support you?
Case-in-point: I am a vegan [commence and conclude groans], and have been active in different Animal Rights groups in the past. The vegan community maintains that animal rights are a moral imperative, and we humans cannot use animals for food, entertainment, clothing, and whatnot. Incidentally, Animal Rights gets ignored by many of the Identity Politics groups. I have to feel like part of this is because Animal Rights is predicated on a distinct moral imperative, and not framed in a political-style rhetoric of oppression (partially because animals cannot lobby for themselves). The narrative for every campaign is going to be different, but I would argue that all of them involve an imperative to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. And for this reason, I cannot condone the exploitation of animals.
Everyday Feminism ran an article recently discussing if the term “Feminism” could come to mean all senses of opposing oppression. I disagree for a few reasons, but I really wanted to think about how I may be like Foucault’s vision, seeing myself as an oppressed party, but really just wanting powering for its own sake.
No, I told myself, there is a normative justice, as Chomsky has argued for the past five decades, and that truth is what compels me to act, and to act now.