“[Through public discussion,] we can learn how we are all complicit in the production of social injustice, even when we appear to be victims. ”
– Albena Azmanova
Albena Azmanova is the author of The Scandal of Reason: A Critical Theory of Political Judgment. This post is the third of a three-part series in which Professor Azmanova discusses The Scandal of Reason, theories of political judgment, and ways in which political philosophy can become more helpful in the actual political process. In today’s final post, she addresses how public discussion can play a crucial role in the political process.
In the model I detail in The Scandal of Reason, discussion and deliberation have a narrower but sharper role than they have in the most popular models of deliberative democracy. Public discussions cannot, and should not, replace the judgment public authority has to make. I find the contemporary hype about deliberative democracy dangerous, as it absolves political actors from their duty to make decisions and to assume the responsibility for these decisions—this fashion is a sort of colonization of political action by public deliberations. Public discussions, in my account, have two important functions.
The first function of public debates is to generate a confrontation able to reveal the deep, common, social origin of lived experiences of suffering. As the various participants’ grievances are placed in a dialogue, it is likely that through the battle of complaints we can discover how individual grievances are connected into a larger picture of injustice. Even better, we can learn how we are all complicit in the production of social injustice, even when we appear to be victims. For instance, the debate in Europe over the right to wear the Islamic headscarf (hijab) was staged on the territory of conflicting interpretations of the grand ideals of religious freedom, freedom of expression, the separation between church and state, and the protection of a common for all citizens public sphere from the penetration of political and religious forces. Yet, public discussions revealed that quite different things were at stake in the different contexts. In the French case, the complaints against the wearing of the hijab at school, and grievances about its ban, concerned the subordination of Islamic group identity to a hegemonic secular identity. In the Turkish case, the grievance against the headscarf ban in universities concerned the deprivation of women from more traditional rural background from access to university education. Effective solutions to the specific injustices that had triggered the hijab debates necessitate social reform for effective inclusion of the weak groups, not legal action for enforcing rights.
I describe this as a process of “making-sense-in-common” in which deliberations create a “critical consensus” among participants on what issues they find relevant as issues of injustice. This “critical consensus” is not a consensus on what is to be done, but a shared understanding of what is wrong. One critical function of deliberations here is the elimination of the injustice of invisibility, the fact that some issues are silenced because initially participants do not see them as directly relevant to their personal grievances. Let’s take for example the current debate on the rising unemployment in western democracies. The holders of good jobs in this debate are either invisible or portrayed as the enemy—they are the fortunate ones. What gets silenced is that the holders of good jobs suffer ever increasing work pressures. If we put the two grievances in a dialogue, we might see that there is a structural injustice connecting them, and this has to do with the maddening uncertainty, felt by holders of good jobs as well as the unemployed, that the dynamics of global capitalism generate.
To come briefly back to the functions of public discussions – their second function is not to issue a policy decision, but to articulate the grounds on which public authority should act. These grounds have less to do with values and principles than with the articulated shared notion of what counts as injustice established through the process of “making-sense-in-common.”