The minimal core of what is being sought, found, and denounced in the victimary discourse that dominates cultural studies today is exclusion from dialogue. The repeated accusations of sexism, racism, not to speak of ableism, ageism, sizeism… reflect–beyond fashion and self-interest–the resentment of those who, whatever their concrete sufferings, were until recently not invited to participate in conversations concerning them. The withering sarcasm of many of these analyses demonstrates with vengeful joy that the formerly excluded can wield the rapier of polemic discourse as well as the former excluders.
In the process, the historical parameters of failures of reciprocity tend to be given short shrift. Historical justifications, however plausible, lack conviction in our post-historical times. The postmodern era begins with the Holocaust, which demonstrates the obscenity of making historical excuses for antisemitism. But the same argument can be made for colonials, people “of color,” women, homosexuals… Equanimity in the face of denial of reciprocity is no longer acceptable. The ethics of past and present must be held to the same moral test: the linguistic reciprocity of the originary scene, the free and equal exchange of signs.
The enduring contribution of contemporary victimary discourse is to force the reframing of our cultural conversation to include everyone. This trend reflects with new clarity the originary moral truth that discursive reciprocity is the de facto horizon of all cultural discourse, including political discourse. This does not imply economic equality, although the presence of all parties in the political debate surely influences economic policies. The radical change in the economic sphere is not that inequalities of status will be abolished, but that they will henceforth have to be explained, and in a sense, justified, to those who are disadvantaged by them.
This new understanding of public conversation is no abstraction; it is currently being imposed by the legal system. To choose an example from my own sphere of activity, University personnel dossiers that in the past contained confidential documents are now open to the party under evaluation. The principle is if you intend to fire me, you have to tell me exactly why.
The model of the social order this suggests is radically different from anything we might have conceived even a few decades ago. Status has been detached from conversational exclusion. We appear to be demonstrating that the moral reciprocity of the exchange of signs can be indefinitely extended without the nightmares entailed by attempting to impose the distributive equality of things. The right to participate in the conversation is not tantamount to political equality, let alone economic equality. But if it does not mean the elimination of all injustice, it does signal the expulsion of sacrificial, victimary structures from modern society.
This means a return to civility; arguments concerning perceived injustices should no longer impute exclusionary intentions to one’s opponents. But less obviously, the abolition of cultural restrictions to dialogue also implies that market values will increase in importance. Only the criteria of the marketplace can provide material for the objective evaluation of an employee who can read–and contest–the contents of his or her personnel dossier. Once all cultural values are equally “appreciated,” the only remaining criterion of evaluation is that of the market–not the monopoly capital monolith of nineteenth century socialism, but the fragmented and indefinitely proliferating market of our own era. Our debt to the Holocaust and to the ensuing postwar liberation struggles tends to make us forget that the conditions for a post-sacrificial society are economic as well as social, and that only our consumer society‘s production of wealth provides the material mediations that allow us to respect each other’s cultural diversity.
The Left wants to educate children directly for the newly universal cultural conversation. Hence it gives priority to fostering unconditional reciprocal recognition through such policies as including handicapped children in ordinary classrooms, promoting understanding for “non-standard” life-styles, emphasizing minority contributions to history, avoiding competition and hierarchy, making class advancement automatic, attributing failure to “learning disabilities.” Ideally, these policies should be implemented in an all-inclusive public school system, so that the incipient dialogue include all children. Given the decline in the public teaching environment, however, most parents with money or ambition send their children to private schools, leaving the cultural emphasis of the public schools as a compensation for lack of achievement.
The Right’s idea of education is limited to building a foundation for marketable skills (“the basics”) while inculcating cultural knowledge and values that stress the unity and the underlying non-sacrificiality of the national culture. In order to make this agenda available to the general population, the Right favors voucher programs to permit pupils to attend private (or enhanced public) schools of their parents’ choice.
For the marketplace to function effectively, it must operate within a society that not only shares a set of general norms, but has evolved means of negotiating cultural differences. But the Left’s emphasis on mutual recognition over educational content neglects the mediations required between the (cultural) exchange of signs and the (economic) exchange of things. Differences in abilities should not be denied but encouraged. The value of ranking pupils in a given discipline includes helping the lower-ranked to find their place in another. But even if this is not possible, sacrificing the learning potential of the more gifted generates not mutual respect but resentment.
The decline of our educational level with respect to other industrialized countries should suffice to convince those not yet persuaded that it is urgent to invest our energies in preparing children for the marketplace. The postmodern Zeitgeist–and the continued expansion of consumer society–are far more effective than the schools in teaching not mere tolerance but cultural interaction. Those white kids with their caps on backward that I talked about last week didn’t acquire their taste for minority culture in the classroom.
The very openness of its racial and ethnic tensions insures that the United States will remain a model of polycultural integration. Our cultural conversation is arguably richer than any other; we must educate our children to profit from these riches in the world marketplace.