The Nature of Civic Culture
Philosophy and Civil Society
The criteria of equality applied in judgments of communitarian justice are grounded in the way of life and the ranking systems of a particularistic cultural community.
Just as the development and exercise of a capacity for civic freedom generates problems for the narrative intelligibility of desire, so also does the capacity for civic justice. To see why, let us keep in mind the distinction between civic justice and communitarian justice.1
The life issue of justice in general arises from the specifically human desire for self-respect or for a socially recognized and confirmed sense of relative worth. The rule of justice in general is "equals to equals" -- i.e., persons considered of equal rank, achievement, or desert in some respect and with regard to some standard should be treated equally. Civic justice is distinguished from communitarian justice by the unusual criterion of equality it applies.
The criteria of equality applied in judgments of communitarian justice are grounded in the way of life and the ranking systems of a particularistic cultural community. The criteria of equality applied in judgments of communitarian justice will therefore differ from community to community. Moreover, within any given particularistic cultural community, criteria of equality will differ depending upon the life context and circumstances involved.
Thus, in a community dependent upon agriculture for its livelihood, a communitarian standard of justice might dictate that the best farmers (other things being equal) be given priority in the overall, community-wide distribution of scarce goods and honors. It would dictate that farmers equal in merit (probably in this case as measured by productivity) be treated equally in the distribution of such goods and honors.
However, in other life contexts within that same community -- for example, in the contexts of family relations or religious practice -- a communitarian standard of justice would typically dictate application of different ranking systems or criteria of equality. In the context of family relations, a communitarian standard of justice would typically dictate that qualities such as blood relationship or personal loyalty rather than agricultural productivity provide the basis for determining equal treatment.
In the context of religious practice, a communitarian standard of justice would typically dictate that piety and faithful religious observance rather than agricultural productivity provide the basis for determining equal treatment. In meting out communitarian justice, then, i.e., in meting out equal treatment to equal persons within the various contexts of a particularistic cultural community, all such contextual nuances must be taken into account.
Thus, the development of an effective sense of communitarian justice requires the effective internalization of the system of overlapping and embedded ranking systems or equality criteria that are applied contextually within a given particularistic cultural community. This internalization of ranking systems typically occurs during the processes of acculturation and education to which all community members are subject.
In general, an ability to
interpret and apply successfully the context-sensitive ranking systems and equality
criteria proper to any community pretty much defines full cultural membership in that
community. These standards of communitarian justice are grounded in and reflective of the
total way of life of the community. They are embodied in its institutions, traditions, and
mores. They articulate the community's totalizing view of the world, its comprehensive
style of responding to the general human life issues of sex, friendship, work, suffering,
sin, death, and salvation. As in the case of all other cultural factors that serve to give
meaning and direction to human desire, these standards of communitarian justice also have
a narrative dimension and function.
The narrative supports of communitarian justice and solidarity
This narrative dimension is evident in the very way that communitarian equality criteria and ranking systems are typically taught and communicated. Equality criteria are taught and expressed most effectively by storytelling.
Stories in general, whatever else they do, provide model life narratives for their audiences, life narratives into which audience members can project themselves as the lead character and thereby apply to their own lives. Stories of communitarian justice and injustice in particular give narrative embodiment to equality criteria and ranking systems. Standards of communitarian justice are internalized through the internalization of the model life narratives that represent them.
These model life narratives show by either positive or negative example how a life story shaped in accordance with standards of communitarian justice is to be recognized and constructed. Such morality tales show the consequences of injustice, but also provide model narrative reconciliations of conflicting moral standards within the community, i.e., cases in which the ranking system to be applied in one life context conflicts with ranking systems applied in others.
Further, stories of communitarian justice and injustice, in teaching a community's equality criteria or ranking systems, also articulate the overall conception of the good life proper to the community, providing narrative representations not only of community standards of justice but also of the community's pursuit of a shared ideal of happiness. In this way, stories of communitarian justice and injustice are organically related to the larger set of narratives that tell the story of the community's pursuit of the good life from its founding to the present.
In internalizing the model life narratives of communitarian justice and injustice, members of a particularistic cultural community thus internalize also elements of the life narrative of the community as a whole -- the life narrative that provides the basis for the community's narrative solidarity, its collective sharing of a story of origins and of the pursuit of a common good.
Community or collective life narratives, like individual life narratives, are open-criterion narratives that have as their rhetorical function the representation of the current status of desire with respect to its object. They differ from individual life narratives in that community life narratives provide meaning and direction for a desire whose object is shared with others.
Thus, ideally, community life narratives generate a sense of solidarity among those engaged in the pursuit of the same ideal of happiness. Because human desire flourishes most readily in anticipating satisfactions that are clearly defined and believed to be attainable, a community life narrative that in fact generates a sense of narrative solidarity in the group serves desire by providing a collective confirmation of the definition, desirability, and attainability of the shared goal. Members of a community develop and nurture bonds of narrative solidarity with its other members by incorporating their own individual life narratives into the larger collective life narrative of the group.
The narrative closure of such an ongoing collective life story typically consists in the community's attainment of the good life as its members currently define it. To support bonds of narrative solidarity, the collective good sought after typically must be broad enough in scope to define ranking systems in all or most of the general contexts of human life -- the contexts of sex, friendship, work, suffering, sin, death, and salvation.
Thus, lovers, families, villages, tribal or ethnic groups, trades, professions, religions, and nationalities construct stories of struggle and hope offering narrative readings of life events that create and support the sense of a common destiny. These stories are collective narratives of desire in which are inscribed individual narratives of desire. Because human desire gains its intelligibility, meaning, and direction from narrative representation, no bonds are stronger than those that can be created by the sharing of a common life narrative. Thus, standards of communitarian justice are designed to nurture and support both the desire of individuals and the narrative solidarity of the group.
The criterion of equality proper to civic justice, however, has a different function. Standards of civic justice, as components of a countervailing liberal democratic civic culture, are designed to weaken or at least modify in a certain respect the communitarian bonds of narrative solidarity. If not understood properly, standards of civic justice can even destroy those bonds.
Just as the development of a capacity for civic freedom requires the achievement of an identity that is independent of any particularistic conception of the good, so also the development of an effective sense of civic justice requires the achievement of an identity freed of narrative definition by any shared life story governed by particularistic criteria of equality -- i.e., it requires the achievement of an identity capable of affirming the equality of all citizens.
Insofar as capacities for both civic freedom and civic justice require the adoption of a standpoint independent of particularistic cultural conceptions of the good, both of these capacities are produced and strengthened by the practice of what I have called life-narrative de-centering. However, in the case of civic justice, the focus is less on the imaginative practice of desiring differently than on the imaginative practice of evaluating self and others differently, through the application of a different sort of ranking system.
Therefore, development of a capacity for civic justice entails the practice of a slightly different form of narrative imagination. A community or collective life narrative, i.e., a life narrative whose rhetorical function it is to produce narrative solidarity, assigns meanings and values to persons in accordance with the particular ranking systems established by the community's current conception of the good. Accordingly, figures who are represented in collective life narratives as great or supremely significant are typically those who reflect the overall priorities and aspirations of the group.
In a particular family narrative, for example, the character of a father may be assigned greatest importance or value, a grandparent or uncle a lesser importance, a neighbor virtually none. In the history of a particularly warlike tribe or nation, the stories of successful warriors or military leaders will typically be assigned greatest importance, the stories of tradespeople or producers less, the stories of domestic workers or slaves none at all. Thus, community life narratives, in their emplotment and selection of subject matter, reflect communitarian criteria of equality. A community life narrative can successfully create a bond of narrative solidarity only by reflecting in this way local standards of justice.
The criterion of equality proper to civic justice is different. The criterion of equality applied in judgments of civic justice is defined by the identical relationship that all citizens as such have to the basic institutional structure of a liberal democracy. Since all citizens as citizens stand in the same relationship to that basic institutional structure, all citizens are equal in that respect, whatever may be their relative value or status as assigned by one or another communitarian ranking system.
To affirm this equality and act accordingly, a citizen is required to develop and maintain two opposing evaluational frameworks for dealing with questions of justice. As a member of a particularistic cultural community, a citizen must apply to self and others the relevant local standards of justice -- those standards of justice that give meaning and structure to community life narratives and that thereby forge the bonds of narrative solidarity. But, upon entering the public sphere, the citizen must put aside all such local standards of justice and call into play a very different evaluational framework, a framework that defines all citizens as equals.
This means, however, that, to apply this egalitarian evaluational framework, the citizen must externalize or step outside the narrative perspective proper to particularistic community life narratives. The citizen must develop the capacity to tell a different story about family, village, profession, or religion -- a story that does not embody local communitarian criteria of equality in its emplotment and selection of subject matter.
Thus, the father whose significance looms so large in the collective life narrative of a particular family must at the same time be imagined to be, as citizen, neither more nor less valuable or significant than a distant uncle, or a far-off neighbor. The military leader whose story looms so large in the history of a nation must at the same time be imagined to be, as citizen, neither more nor less valuable or significant than a neighborhood merchant or a household domestic. Let us call the practice of this sort of narrative imagination the practice of life-narrational equalization.
Let us note the differences between the practices of what I have called life-narrational de-centering and life-narrational equalization.
Life narrational de-centering promotes development of a capacity for civic freedom by preventing the narrative over-investment of desire in its current object. In this form of narrative imagination, the goal is to recognize and affirm the narratively-constructed character of all human identity. Practice in giving different narrative readings of the "same" life events by referring them to different narrative closures can produce the realization that human life narratives are open-criterion narratives. Only a person who has developed an external, authorial perspective on all life narrative can construct a particular life narrative freely and responsibly.
The practice of life-narrational equalization, on the other hand, promotes the development of a capacity for civic justice by preventing the over-investment of desire in one particular narrative-embodied ranking system or in an exclusive bond of narrative solidarity. Community or collective life narratives embody in their selection and representation of subject matter social hierarchies based on particularistic communitarian standards of justice. A citizen must be able to adopt an external perspective on all such social hierarchies if a capacity for civic justice is to be developed.
The criterion of equality
proper to civic justice is a countervailing criterion. Unlike the criteria of equality
proper to communitarian justice, it has no content in itself. The entire point of applying
the egalitarian evaluational framework proper to civic justice is to neutralize
particularistic local ranking systems so as to create a space independent of all social
hierarchies wherein citizens can treat one another as equals.
The egalitarian bond of civic friendship and its narrative roots
Let us keep in mind that those who are to be treated as equal fellow citizens within the space of civic discourse are also those who, as members of one particular community or another, have been assigned either higher or lower rank in terms of local communitarian standards of justice. This rank or status does not simply disappear when citizens enter the public sphere. In fact, the egalitarian evaluational framework proper to the public sphere can be properly applied only in its difference from or in its contrast to the hierarchical evaluational frameworks defined by communitarian standards of justice.
Civic equality is a property that persons gain only when they enter the liberal democratic public sphere and that property is attributed to them by their fellow citizens always in spite of the rank or status those persons have within one particularistic cultural community or another. Civic equality does not abolish hierarchical rank or status, but achieves its force through the recognition of it, affirming the equality of general and private, CEO and worker, billionaire and derelict, Pope and layperson, champion and also-ran precisely in spite of and with a view to the large differences in their local status.
Further, the treatment of fellow citizens as equals is not merely a formal procedural matter, but, to be fully effective, requires its own special bond of affection. We call this bond civic friendship.
The bond of civic friendship differs greatly from the bond of communitarian solidarity. Because the liberal democratic public sphere, where the equality criteria of civic justice have their application, is itself limited in scope, so also is the bond of civic friendship limited in scope. The bond of civic friendship unites persons who share the same relationship to the basic institutional structure of a liberal democratic society. They may share nothing else, but they may often also share membership in a particularistic cultural community and thereby ties of communitarian solidarity.
Here we see the complexity that is introduced into every relationship by liberal democratic citizenship. In a liberal democracy, every person has at least a twofold relationship with every other person. First, every person is related to every other as either a member or a nonmember of a particularistic cultural community. That relationship is governed by the equality criteria and ranking systems proper to communitarian justice. Second, every person is related to every to every other as citizen, a relationship governed by civic friendship and the standards proper to civic justice.
Within particularistic cultural communities, to act justly, one must treat with appropriate respect persons assigned high status by local ranking systems. As citizen, on the other hand, to act justly, one must treat as equals both high-ranking and low-ranking members of every particularistic cultural community, including one's own, regardless of their local rank. In short, a citizen must learn to cultivate with members of his or her own community not only the hierarchical bond of narrative solidarity, but also the egalitarian bond of civic friendship.
The practice of life-narrational equalization is designed to produce the capacity for developing and maintaining this twofold relationship to fellow citizens. This practice consists in giving alternative narrative readings to life events -- to those events, above all, whose stories represent differentials in communitarian rank as properties inherent in the persons ranked. Any narrative reading of life events that represents differentials in communitarian rank as objective properties of persons is always the product of a particularistic narrative perspective or standpoint -- the standpoint of narrative solidarity with the particularistic cultural community doing the ranking.
The practice of life-narrational equalization is designed to lead to a recognition and affirmation of the this narratively-constructed nature of all communitarian rank differentials. This form of narrative imagination is designed to promote the realization that different narrative readings of the "same" life events can always be given that overturn or at least reinterpret any differentials in communitarian rank assigned to persons as their inherent properties. These other readings adopt different narrative standpoints and apply different ranking systems -- ranking systems either belonging to different life contexts or identified with different cultural communities altogether.
Thus, in the case of a community life narrative of a particular battle or campaign that represents a military leader as an object of respect and represents foot soldiers as a persons of relative insignificance, the practice of life-narrational equalization would seek to recast this story in a way that produces at least a reinterpretation, if not a reversal, of the relative rankings of the individuals described.
For example, the story of the battle or campaign could be recast from a narrative perspective expressing solidarity with the combat experiences of the common foot soldier. Told in this way, the story might represent the military leader as insulated from and untested by the rigors of combat and the foot soldier as the true hero. The point of this exercise of narrative imagination would not be to discover the "truth" about some particular set of events or merely to "bring down the mighty" by discrediting great military leadership. The purpose of such a narrative exercise would rather be to develop an external perspective on all communitarian life narratives, one that promotes the capacity to recognize and affirm the rank differentials assigned to persons as narrative constructions, as products of one or another particularistic narrative standpoint that can easily be reversed.
To the extent that this sort of narrative exercise actually promotes development of this externalized perspective, it serves to develop a capacity to view all narrative-embodied, particularistic rank differentials as external to those who are ranked by them -- thereby holding open the egalitarian space, outside of and against all particularistic ranking systems, within which citizens as citizens can address one another on equal terms and form bonds of civic friendship.
Thus, in different ways, both the practices of life-narrational de-centering and life-narrational equalization promote the liberation of desire, i.e., the narrative transformation of the standpoint of desire that prevents an exclusive or total investment of desire in its current object.
The practice of life-narrational de-centering focuses on narrative re-readings of life events in terms of different and conflicting happiness ideals. This form of narrative imagination promotes development of a capacity for civic freedom. It liberates desire by representing in narrative terms the desirability of many different life plans and goals.
The practice of life-narration equalization focuses on narrative re-readings of life events that apply different and conflicting ranking systems or criteria of equality. As we have seen, this form of narrative imagination promotes the development of a capacity for civic justice by promoting the recognition that rankings applied to persons in community life narratives are not inherent properties of those persons, but rather are dependent upon the adoption of a standpoint of narrative solidarity with a particularistic cultural community. This form of narrative imagination liberates desire by overturning the narratively embodied social hierarchies and ranking systems in which desire can become over-invested.
Page last edited: January 20, 2002
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Thomas Bridges. All rights reserved.
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