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Wednesday, June 14, 2017


The response to my blog post entitled “NORMS” has been rambunctious, hilarious, delightful.  I have a good deal to say by way of response, but before all else, I must begin with something Jerry Fresia wrote:

“prior to my first full-time teaching assignment at UC Santa Barbara, I was told (or maybe warned!) by a professor friend that whatever I do, I should not “embarrass” the university (or department chairs, etc). It was 1986 and Desmond Tutu gave an impassioned speech, at a very large assembly open to the public, urging that the UC universities divest. Chancellor Huttenback of UCSB responded by saying to Bishop Tutu, “I don’t know what to say.”

Later that day at a student rally, I was asked to say a few words. I recounted the advice/warning that I had received (clearly a big fat norm) and told the students that the embarrassment thing was or ought to be a two way street and that I was embarrassed by the Chancellor’s response.

Note: About an hour after I spoke at the rally about my two-way sense of embarrassment, the Chancellor actually ran over me with his car, literally. Long story. Later that year Chancellor Huttenback was convicted and ousted over the embezzlement of university funds as well as tax evasion. Ah, those were the days!”

Now really, Jerry, you cannot leave it at that!  I must insist that you tell us the whole story.  The blog is yours.

 A propos, in 1981, I was put up for a professorship at Brandeis shortly after my wife and I moved from Amherst to Boston.  The President, Marver Bernstein, was dead set against the appointment, saying that I had done some good work when I was young but was now played out.  [His Provost asked the Chair of the Philosophy Department, scornfully, “Why do you want another Marcuse?”  It was the greatest compliment I have ever received.]  I didn’t get the job, thank God.  My story, like Jerry’s, ends happily.  Shortly thereafter, Bernstein was killed in a hotel fire in Israel.

A number of you penned effulgent words of devotion, mimicking and mocking that godawful Cabinet meeting.  I will tell you a deep, dark, shameful secret.  I kind of liked them when I read them.  There!  And they say old folks can’t play Truth or Dare!

Let me move on to a more serious part of Jerry’s comment.  He writes:  “Based upon what you have just said, I assume you would agree that norms tend to express ideology.  So my question is, if norms are concrete manifestations of ideology, as I believe many norms are, are there social norms that would support actions of liberation? Or do such actions always push a society or institution to the edge of collapse?”

Jerry’s question in a way echoes the comment of S. Wallerstein, who wrote:  “There are good norms and there are bad norms.  For example, the norms that have to do with how women are treated in Saudi Arabia are bad in general.  I believe that the academic norms which you outline above are good, although full disclosure, I may just be defending norms that I guided my professional life with during the years that I taught in a university.  I'm not at all sure which of the norms of U.S. political behavior are good and which are bad. We'd first have to have some sense of the explicit and implicit norms, tacit and stated norms, written and unwritten norms, which function there.”

These are really interesting comments, and if I can wrest my eyes away from the train wreck of the Trump presidency, I want to try to reply to them. 

It is clear that there are social norms that support actions of liberation and, what is equally important, that would work to sustain a just society if one were to come into existence.  Norms are the public face of our social actions, and as such they are inevitably in conflict with many of our deepest desires – for domination, for revenge, for private gratification at the expense of the needs of others.  These are universal human desires, surely present in a socialist society as they are in capitalist, feudal, or slave societies.  A modern post-industrial socialist society will necessarily be bureaucratically organized.  Those occupying positions of public trust or managing large-scale enterprises will be drawn to favor some – children or friends, perhaps – to the detriment of others not so connected.  It is public norms, celebrated and reinforced by honor, by public recognition, by tradition, and by ideology, that will strengthen the public face of the individual against the temptations of self-interest. 

S Wallerstein is most assuredly correct.  There are good norms and bad norms.  As I have argued elsewhere, no philosophical argument will serve to distinguish between the good and the bad.  That is a matter of fundamental human choice.  As my Columbia student said all those years ago, “First you must choose which side you are on.  Then you will be able to decide what you ought to do.”  But it is important to recognize that those enforcing and living by the norms of Saudi Arabian society with regard to women are, sociologically speaking, doing just what I am doing when I reject those norms and instead embrace and live by the norms of a gender equal society.  A great many philosophers have defended the position that those who act immorally are, must be, guilty in effect of false consciousness, but I am convinced that is a mistake.  There are righteous, upstanding, honorable [by their lights] racists, sexists, and capitalist exploiters.  I simply choose to make them my enemies because they treat as enemies those with whom I have made common cause.  They feel the same pride, the same sense of subordinating themselves to norms dictated by society, the same willingness to yield self-interest to the norms they embrace, as I do.  They are my enemies, but I will misjudge their motives and fail to foresee their actions if I make the mistake of thinking that they must be self-serving cowards simply because they pursue evil ends.


s. wallerstein said...

What you say about righteous, upstanding sexists and exploiters is certainly true about pre-globalized societies, but now in my experience at least when I argue with sexists or exploiters about right and wrong, they quickly become uneasy and defensive, because there seems to be a growing global consensus that sexism and exploitation, at least in their more blatant forms, are just plain wrong. Now if you look at the Republican Party, you might reach an opposite conclusion, but on an international scale U.S. Republicans are on the far far looney right and live in their own closed universe. Yes, of course, there is a far rightwing everywhere, but they are very uneasy about defending their beliefs and for that reason, they quickly recur to violence when a debate threatens their precarious belief systems.

Jerry Brown said...

Your modesty is exceeded only by your intellect. I should have known you would see through the previous flattery. I wish I could confidently say the same for our President.

He must know that in truth his administration has accomplished very little so far. He must realize that his cabinet members were kissing up to him in that meeting. Maybe he does know that and demands it anyway as part of some plan. The man has spent the last 35 years (at least) telling everyone how fantastic his businesses are, how fabulous his properties are, how he is the best at basically everything. Enough people have believed him to the extent that he is still extremely wealthy and won enough votes to become President. Perhaps he is sticking with that plan. Best case scenario, this is part of some strategy he has. Worst case is he actually believes the crap he and his cabinet members were spouting.

Paul said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I hope this question doesn't sound impertinent, as that is not my intention, but I have found myself wondering when Prof. Wolff writes about "those with whom I have made common cause", who are they, exactly?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

It is not impertinent at all! Let me give you an historical rather than a theoretical answer. These are some of the people with whom I have made common cause over the course of a long life: Those who, in the early '60s, were united in their opposition to nuclear weapons; those Cubans at the same time who made the Cuban revolution and their comrades in America who opposed the abortive invasion and subsequent imbargo of Cuba; those who marched and protested for Civil Rights; those who marched and protested and occupied college and university buildings against the Viet Nam War; those who struggled for freedom against the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the more than 1600 students I helped to get university educations by raising money in America for them; Those Harvard and Radcliffe alums who organized to try to get Harvard to divest [we failed]. This is a partial list of actual people with whom I made common cause by cting in one way or another. I do not include those with whom I have expressd solidarity in my writings. That is another matter. It is not a terribly impressive list. I have had many friends who have done much more [not to speak of Jerry Fresia!]. The simple truth is that I have led an isolated and bookish life, for the most part, and have been less involved in action than I should have been.

F Lengyel said...

"I should have known you would see through the previous flattery."

This would not deter me from the heroic groveling obsequiousness that I had hoped was firmly established in the previous thread.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Well! I should hope not!! Or should I say I SHOULD HOPE NOT!!!!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your reply, Prof. Wolff.

All meritorious causes, to be sure.

Still, perhaps it's just my myopia, but I cannot detect the working class among your comrades. It may be just an omission, but I see no unions among those you fought with. No left-wing parties, beyond the Democrats.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Aside from the unions at UMass, you are quite right. Well, not quite right, because of my South African allegiances, but essentially right. I was talking not about where my heart and mind are, nor what I have written, but where I have put my body, my energy, my action, and it is quite true that I have not fought alongside working class comrades. [I certainly do not count speaking at socialist scholars meetings and such.] Make of it what you will, but it is a fact about the arc of my life. I was attempting to speak honestly, not to strike a pose.

Anonymous said...

I thank you for your honesty.