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  • Mark 11:34 pm on December 29, 2010 Permalink
    Tags: , kraftt-ebing, , sexuality research, ,   

    Reflections on a year spent studying asexuality 

    I was a little confused when I first encountered the term asexual. The person who used the term defined as asexual and yet, living with him at the time, I knew he had sex. Or at the very least that he sometimes brought people home who then spent the night. In common with most people, my initial sense of the term was some half-remembered throwback from secondary school Biology. So it was a little confusing to me that he apparently slept with people. It was the questions raised by this situation that fostered my initial interest in asexuality and, as I got answers, I found myself confronted by more questions which only amplified my newfound curiosity about the subject. By the start of 2009 I had resolved to satisfy my curiosity (in the process putting some of my training in social research to good use) and in the somewhat ephemeral space of time precariously lodged between my personal life and my PhD, I began a research project exploring asexuality and what it meant to asexual individuals.

    As well as the asexual individuals I already knew, I found participants through the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) and the Asexuality Live Journal. The front page of the AVEN website defines an asexual as ‘someone who does not experience sexual attraction’ and due to the popularity of the site this definition has been highly influential. However as I soon found out, it was not exhaustive. Behind this ‘umbrella term’ lay a wide variety of people who related in a whole host of different ways to sex and romance. Some asexuals are indifferent to sex and, in the context of a relationship, are happy to have it because they know it’s important to their partners. Others find the prospect abhorrent and are utterly averse to the prospect of sex (although I heard many sad tales of people subjecting themselves to an experience they hated because at that point they didn’t feel it was ok to say they didn’t want to). Some asexuals are ardent romantics and want nothing more than to find someone special to share their life with. Others prefer to find companionship through friends and family, with no interest  in finding a partner. What unites them is a common experience of feeling alienated from a society which, particularly for young people, places a great burden on sexual experience as a sign of self exploration and growing up. For a lot of asexuals this left them feeling “broken” (this was a common phrase used) and abnormal. At least it did until they discovered the asexuality community and for the first time began to feel that their orientation was ok.

    Overall the research has been an enormously positive experience for me, at least apart from my partner’s initial fears that the whole thing was a convoluted preliminary to coming out as asexual myself (apparently this used to happen with some frequency in the early days of modern sexuality studies). The idea that romantic attraction and sexual attraction are distinct (though for many people related) things has clarified a lot in my personal life. It’s also helped me understand the confusing encounters which too often plagued my adolescence. I’m much more comfortable with the fact that sex is something which only really makes sense for me within the context of a committed relationship (whereas I’d previously felt shy at expressing this thought around some of my more libertine friends). I’ve also been left with the strong conviction that the recognition of asexuality is not just important for asexuals but for everyone else as well.

    For instance consider the impact that the struggle for gay rights has had on society and culture more widely. At its worst the increased awareness and visibility has produced phenomena such as the mock-lesbian Nuts-style porn shoots and the meterosexual cliché. At best though it has worked to make the world a safer and more humane place in which to live: more tolerant of sexual diversity, more aware of sexual choice and more open to sexual difference.

    So why did the fight for gay liberation have this impact? At least in part it was down to the ideas which it established in the popular consciousness. For instance it wasn’t until people started calling themselves homosexual that it made sense for other people to call themselves heterosexual. Up until that point, it had simply been taken for granted and, as such, escaped scrutiny either by individuals or by society more widely.  As adjectives both homosexual and heterosexual were coined in 1892, in an English translation of work by the early sexologist Kraftt-Ebing. However, as a noun heterosexual didn’t enter common usage until the 1960s.

    Similarly I think that a wider recognition of asexuality would inevitably give rise to a much deeper understanding of what it is to be sexual. Despite the pervasiveness with which the importance of sex is affirmed within our culture, we’re often profoundly inarticulate about the role that sex plays in our lives and why it is important to us. At least in terms of the younger generation, we’re far more likely to discuss sex (good sex, bad sex, weird sex ) then we are the place we presume it ought to occupy in our lives. We’re so prone to seeing sexuality as a marker of personal fulfilment that we rarely stop and ask ourselves where we, as individuals, stand in relation to it and what importance it genuinely holds in our lives. Crucially some of us don’t feel particularly free to say that, while we may want sex, it holds no great importance in our lives (at least not relative to other things like friends, romance and love).

    Nowadays most people know someone from the LGBT community and, in many cases, this acquaintance forces them (at least fleetingly) to think about their own sexuality and what it means to them. What would happen if most people knew someone from the asexual community? I think, or at least hope, it would lead the rest of us to think more deeply about sex and in the process clarify where it stands for us in relation to romance and love. In short it would help us all to be a bit clearer about what matters to us and why. Perhaps then we’d all see that there’s more to life than sex and, more to the point, we’d be a lot clearer about what that ‘more’ is.

    Originally posted on The Most Cake


  • Mark 4:20 am on December 29, 2010 Permalink
    Tags: , business improvement districts, city co, ground control, , politics of space, privatization, ,   

    The Future of the British City? A review of Ground Control by Anna Minton 

    The reconstruction of Manchester’s city centre after the IRA’s 1996 bomb stood as the background to my teenage years and, as is often the case with such things, I never really scrutinised or questioned the direction it took. I was 11 at the time of the bombing and had been watching cartoons on a Saturday morning before driving into the city centre with my mother. I vaguely remember us being stopped in the car by a hastily erected police cordon on the outskirts of the city but it was only later in the day, while at my grandmother’s nursing home, that we found out what had happened. At the time the impact of the bombing seemed to be expressed solely in the immediacy of the destruction wrought; yet many years later, as I read Ground Control, it became clear quite how the events of that morning paved the way for a radical and, at the time, unprecedented experiment in city-centre governance.

    Since 2000 the centre of Manchester has been run by a private company called City Co which, in its own words, “provides the vision, strategy and influence” necessary for “creating the trading conditions for business to prosper”. The Manchester city council describes it as follows:

    Cityco is Manchester’s city centre management company. Cityco is an independent, member-based organisation, which represents businesses in the city centre, primarily leisure, hotels, retailers, commercial property and professional services. The company’s main objective is to help create the trading conditions for business in the city centre to prosper; a broad aim, which we work towards in a variety of strategic and operational ways.

    We are well-networked within the city and our close links with the City Council, the Police, transport bodies and other organisations allow us to help members resolve security and environmental problems. We lobby on behalf of members, for example, to improve late night public transport and regulatory frameworks, and undertake initiatives, including research, to inform the long-term strategic direction of the city centre.

    Cityco also promotes the city nationally and internationally as a leisure and business destination, running inventive and successful marketing campaigns.

    Far from being an isolated case, Cityco was the prototype for a new mode of city centre governance which became the heart of New Labour’s urban  policy: the Business Improvement District (BID). It’s a policy imported from America, where it has spread quickly over the last 15 years. Businesses petition the local government to create a BID, the local government (in principle) determines that a majority of the businesses in the area want the BID and then the legislation enacting the BID is enacted. In the US, after the creation of a BID, all business property owners within the district pay a fee – even those who opposed its creation – while in the UK, in the absence of a property register, occupiers pay the fee. This fee pays, as in the case of Cityco, for activity intended to create good business conditions within the area.

    Taken in a rather naive and literal sense this could be seen to practically amount to keeping the area clean, safe and attractive. However there’s a subtle but profound conflation at work here; good business conditions for the sort of retail and leisure outlets which usual dominate BIDs amount to circumstances which engender consumption and remove obstacles to consumption. As Anna Minton  reports a BID manager telling her: “high margins come with ABC1s, low margins with C2DEs. My job is to create an environment which will bring in more ABC1s” (pg 45). If you fall into the most desire socio-economic groups and are coming into the BID in order to spend money then the BID represents a proactive attempt to shape the area to your immediate needs. This becomes progressively less true as the people concerned become less socio-economically desirable and less intent on consumption to the point where those who are uneconomical, or even anti-economic, become subject to outright harassment.

    The Loiterers Resistance Movement are a group influenced by psychogeography who attempt to foster the creative exploration of Manchester. In 2008 they attempted to organize a festival of talks, walks and performances in the city-centre but faced resistance from Cityco at every turn. They were told that flyering without a permit  would constitute littering and they would be fined. They were refused permission to pitch a tent as part of an outdoor art exhibition on the grounds that it might encourage homeless people into the city. An event about pigeons came under fire on the grounds that it might “encourage people to like pigeons”. Members of the group who were asking passers-by about their use of the city-centre were questioned and subject to “vague” threats by Cityco’s wardens. Obviously though this is only example when many more could be cited. Indeed many go unreported.

    It’s great to be a wealthy consumer within a BID; quite the opposite to be homeless, flaneur, protestor, busker, young or poor. So the idea that certain public goods (cleaning, security, entertainment) are necessarily common goods is misleading when those specific public goods are pursued by business as a means to an end. Particularly when these de facto governmental bodies come equipped with private police (such as Cityco’s wardens and rangers) and vast CCTV networks. Likewise their ambiguous status, as can be seen in the growing outsourcing of policing functions to private security and equal involvement in policing operations, itself grants security guards de facto powers. Far from being private security guards, they are City Wardens who work with the police and increasingly have police powers; this leaves members of the public less likely to question them and individuals guards more likely to lie about or abuse their powers, at least when the individual would obviously be unlikely to take the matter to court. Likewise the extent of collusion between the police and private security (witness EON and EDO) elsewhere doesn’t inspire confidence in the accountability of these increasingly empowered and emboldened private security agents.

    This is only one small aspect of the book but it stuck with me for biographical reasons. It’s also emblematic of the wider issues the book deals with, as market imperatives and the utilitarian individualism which goes with them literarly consume public space: gated luxury housing, gated social housing, BIDs, CCTV, ASBOs, ‘malls without walls’. The attempt to provide control and security, as a business driven effort to attract well-off consumers and as a well-off consumer driven effort to repel the dangerous outsider, are radically transforming the spatial politics of the UK in ways which have yet to be adequately conceptualised; anger and protest at individual symptoms have yet to translate into a general understanding of the underlying problem which could provide an effective basis for resistance. Ground Control is an admirable attempt to provide such a basis but one which, at less than 200 pages, was always bound to remain incomplete.

  • Mark 9:04 am on December 27, 2010 Permalink
    Tags: causal explanation, dormative power, gregory bateson, sex drive, ,   

    The Sex Drive Hypothesis 

    Characteristically, the scientist confronts a complex interaction system – in this case, an interaction between man and opium. He observes a change in the system – the man falls asleep. The scientist then explains the change by giving a name to a fictitious ’cause’, located in one or other component of the interacting system. Either the opium contains a reified dormitive principle, or the man contains a reified need for sleep, an adormitosis, which is ‘expressed’ in his response to opium. (Gregory Bateson – Steps To An Ecology of Mind: xxvii)

    This is an idea I first encountered as an undergraduate on a philosophy of science course. The suggestion here is not that opium lacks this ‘dormitive power’ but simply that citing this ‘power’ is not, properly speaking, an explanation. It simply restates an observed regularity (someone consumes opium —> they fall asleep) by imputing to the ’cause’ the capacity to produce the ‘effect’.  It ignores the underlying causal question: what is it about the properties of opium which leaves it able to manifest this effect when consumed by human beings? Behind any observed regularity (A —> B) we can assume the existence of a mechanism which explains why (under conditions C) the occurence of A leads to the occurence of B. In this case the physical structure of the human brain (the presence of Opioid Reptors) means that when a normal human being consumes a sufficient quantity of opium, it causes them to fall asleep.  So behind the ‘dormative power’ there lies a causal story waiting to be told.

    Next question: what’s a ‘sex drive’? It’s a term which has increasingly bugged me since I began to study asexuality. All the explanations I have come across (an instinctual drive for sex, a physiological need for sex, the behavioural manifestation of our sex hormones etc) are fundamentally circular in the manner of opium’s dormative power. I’m not for a second denying that the vast majority of people both exhibit & experience a desire for sexual activity, I’m simply suggesting that ‘sex drive’ (or libido) is not, as such, an explanation of this sexual activity. At best it’s an invitation to tell a further causal story. There have obviously been some attempts to do this but they have tended to be either reductively biological (e.g. hormonal/neurochemical) or psychological (e.g. developmental theories of libido). Do they have to be? What would a non-reductive theory of ‘sex drive’ look like? Ask me at the end of the post doc I’m going to apply for!

  • Mark 11:14 am on December 26, 2010 Permalink
    Tags: friends with benefits, sociology of intimacy, ,   

    Romance yields to ‘friendship with benefits’? 

    An interesting article in today’s Times (which I can’t link to because of the paywall) about the growth of ‘friendship with benefits’. It reports findings of research in the US which suggests that such relationships are becoming a lot more demographically varied (rather than being the preserve of university students) and that “unexpectedly … both men and women reported being more committed to the friendship than to the sexual aspect of the relationship”.

    This is an interesting assumption to explore. Why is it “unexpected” that the friendship will be a more important part of the relationship than the sex? Largely because of the (often unacknowledged) hierarchies of intimacy through which we make sense of human relationships. First comes a committed sexual relationship, then an uncommited sexual relationship, then sex outside the context of a relationship until, eventually, we get to friendship. Now I’m not for a second suggesting that people don’t conceive of friendship as emotionally or morally important. Only that the way in which many of us habitually think of human relationships accords it a lesser status, in terms of intimacy, then sexual relationships.

    This is something that many of the asexual people I’ve spoken to in my research report finding: it’s difficult for those around them to take the notion of an ‘asexual relationship’ seriously because, without the sex, it’s difficult to differentiate it from a friendship. Often, we see sex as a precondition (indeed an explanation) of intimacy within a relationship between two people. So relationships which diverge from this particular conception (dyadic, exclusive, intimate, sexual) pose conceptual problems which are rarely addressed. In a very literal sense their participants meet the limits of language, as a relatively limited range of relational concepts (friend, sexual partner, romantic partner, life partner – there’s a variety of descriptions for these concepts but obvious convergence upon the underlying ideas) fail to do justice to their emotional experience.

    Being in a relationship leaves both individuals needing to articulate and present that relationship: to themselves, to each other and to the wider world. There’s more to our experience and understanding of relationships than the terms in which we describe them. In fact it’s the interaction between the former and the latter which leads to growth and change, as we try to put it words what we feel and reciprocal understandings & expectations begin to flow from that dialogue, producing transformation which in turn poses new descriptive challenges.

    Many asexuals I’ve spoken to report the sense that boundaries between these categories are blurred for them. With this blurring comes a need for creative redescription, personalizing and rearticulating these concepts before ultimately, perhaps, moving beyond them. In a very real way, relationships which push at the boundaries of our languages for talking about them represent experiments in human relationality. It’s through the emotional agency of people involved in them that relational culture changes at the macro level. If enough people have established a certain way of relating to each other then it opens up that possibility in language.

    I suspect, though am by no means certain, that the concept of ‘friendship with benefits’ is experienced as inadequate by many/most of those being studied. It’s an attempt to understand and describe what they’re doing through the modification of existing concept and, as such, remains provisional. Or perhaps it’s an imposition of the researchers and/or journalists. Such considerations should be at the forefront of research into human relationships. Our relationships aren’t reducible to the ways in which we talk about them but nor are they ultimately separable.

  • Mark 4:14 pm on December 21, 2010 Permalink
    Tags: biological determinism, popular science, socialisation of gender,   

    Biological Determinism 

    Young chimps play make-believe games in which they pretend that a favourite stick is a baby for nurturing and even putting to bed, according to a 14-year study of the animals in Uganda.

    Biologists watched the chimps in the forests of Kibale National Park in Uganda and found intriguing differences in the way young males and females passed their time – providing evidence that differences in the way boys and girls play may have a genetically hardwired element.

    “There are predispositions, biological influences, that lead females and males to treat sticks differently,” Richard Wrangham, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, told the Guardian. “What we’ve got here is evidence that without any kind of socialisation by adults, females seem to be predisposed to react to sticks as though they were dolls.” This could reflect more female interest in infant care and playing at mothering.

    An irritating story in the Guardian today which reports that the discovery of gendered behavior amongst Chimps stands as ‘evidence’ for the biological basis of gender difference. As it’s presented in the article, this is a patently stupid claim: infant chimps do undergo socialization and thus there’s no prima faciereason to explain away gendered behavior in reductively genetic terms. As far as I was aware the former is an entirely uncontentious claim. In fact a quick glance at the biologist’s research interests show that much of what he studies actually relates to this process which makes the above quotes really rather weird. So given the principle of charity, perhaps the results of the study have been misunderstood and/or stripped of context by the journalist writing about it? The worrying thing is the role that articles like this can play in shaping popular debates about gender and biology.

  • Mark 4:00 pm on December 19, 2010 Permalink
    Tags: , commonality and difference, sociology of the internet,   

    Commonality and Difference 

    Lada Adamic, a researcher at HP Labs, studied the users of an online student centre at Stanford called Club Nexus and found that two students were likely to be friends if their interests overlapped, and that the likelihood rose if the shared interests were more specific. (Two people who like fencing are likelier to be friends than two people who like football.) The net effect is that it’s easier to like people who are odd in the same ways you are odd, but it’s harder to find them.

    I just read this in Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody. It’s an impressively succinct statement but it’s focus on transaction costs (the easiness of liking people, the difficulty of finding them) obscures the over-arching significance of the issue. What does it mean to talk about the ‘ways you are odd’? These amount to difference i.e. the ways in which we differ from others in society. However where there is difference, there is always the potential for commonality. Some of the music I like is appreciated by very few of the people I encounter in day-to-day life – thus it’s a difference – though, conversely, it’s also a commonality with regards to a small number of people who are part of my life, as well as a much greater number of people who I don’t personally know but whose existence I’m aware of through various means (e.g. seeing them at gigs, reading fan sites, knowing that people other than myself buy certain music).

    So there’s a difference which is actual, in the sense that it’s a property (though not necessarily an acknowledge, recognised or relevant one) of ongoing relationships I negotiate on an everyday basic. But notwithstanding the handful of friends whom share my taste in music, the commonality is only potential. I may share a room with a crowd of people at a gig but there’s no ongoing relationship with them. The commonality is an incidental property of the aggregate crowd (an individual appreciation of the same music has contingently led to its assembly in the room) and, in many cases, it explains at least part of why groups of friends are together at the gig, but it has no relational existence beyond this. However the potential commonality can often easily be actualised because, as Shirky puts it, “it’s easier to like people who are odd in the same ways you are odd’. In my life I’ve had countless relatively shallow (in the sense that the conversation stays on one topic) though very pleasant chats with random people at gigs about the band we’re seeing. A shared taste in music has also been the basis for sustaining some long-term friendships in spite of a lack of geographical proximity.

    This is because commonality and difference are important things in human relationships.  At any point in time there’s a balance between the former and the latter which is partly constitutive of any particular relationship. Furthermore there’s a balance between the two in terms of the net ensemble of our personal relationships. In either case our fluctuating proclivities and unfolding biographies leave this balance standing as more or less satisfying. My partner and I might try and do more things together because we feel our relationship needs more commonality to counterbalance the difference which results from an array of separate interests. I might actively seek out people who share a particular interest with me because I come to find it unsatisfying to have too few people to share conversations, activities and plans relating to those interests with. We’re always bound up within networks of relationships (what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls webs of interlocution) and a large part of the moral-existential texture of our life is shaped by continually changing balance between commonality and difference which define these relationships. Furthermore we regularly take action to change this balance, though obviously not conceiving the issue at stake in this sort of terminology.

    The important thing Shirky is pointing to is the way that social media is reshaping the dynamics through which such changes can occur. It’s easier than ever to actualise potential commonalities because the internet massively reduces the difficulty involved in connecting with others who share an interest. Furthermore the mediated connections it facilitates can easily rise to unmediated (i.e. face to face) connections. In fact the growing majority within society who use the internet renders the interpenetration of offline & online networks inevitable, to the point that the boundary between the two becomes intrinsically ambiguous.

    The internet has radically changed the interface between commonality and difference within society because it has made it easy to connect with similar others who we might not otherwise encounter in our everyday life. The growth of the asexuality community can be seen in these terms. What started with online interaction on message boards and blogs has given rise to something which is, in a very real sense, a community. Some of this communal life is played out offline, though much still happens online. In fact it’s the latter, particularly the perpetual discussion & deliberation about personal experience, which explains the formation of the community. Social media offers heretofore unparalleled opportunities not just for making connections but for articulation and elaboration of the commonalities which underlie such connections. In doing so the relationships involved changed but so do the people themselves. Online discussion within the asexual community has spawned a rich vocabulary replete with concepts which become a part of how the individuals involved see their selves and see their lives.

  • Mark 12:35 pm on December 14, 2010 Permalink
    Tags: , , ,   

    Solitude and Interiority 

    The historians taught us long ago that the King was never left alone. But, in fact, until the end of the seventeeth century, nobody was ever left alone. The density of social life made isolation virtually impossible, and people who managed to shut themselves up in a room for some time were regarded as exceptional characters: relations between peers, relations between people of the same class but dependent on one another, relations between masters and servants – these everyday relations never left a man by himself.

    I originally came across this passage by the historian Philip Aries quoted in Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self a few years ago and it’s something my mind has intermittently gone back to. What effect has the possibility of solitude had on the form human interiority takes?

    I think it was a necessary though insufficient condition for the widespread development of autonomous reflexivity: monological decision-making with practical criteria about achieving one’s ends. In any particular situation where an individual is alone, their solitude acts as an enablement for the practice of purely internal deliberation. Conversely the omnipresence of others serves to constrain such practice, with the constant possibility of interruption and concomitant attempts to draw the individual into dialogical decision making.

    Solitude represents the possibility of escape from social normativity. In its facilitation of purely internal decision-making, it allows possibilities to be voiced which would meet conversational sanction with others and frees the individual from the need to articulate their deliberations in terms which are conversationally and socially acceptable. Lack of solitude doesn’t prevent this process but it makes it much more difficult. Furthermore, the kinds of internal conversations which take place in solitude tend to have different properties to those which don’t. They’re easier to sustain at length without the risk of interruption. Physical aloneness can often lead to an easing of social concerns. Their greater possible duration creates more opportunities for internal discernment and deliberative experimentation. I suspect that until much of the population was having these experiences on a semi-regular basis, it was not possible for autonomous reflexivity to develop in a widespread way. Monological deliberation may have been practiced but it was the exception rather than the rule: both in terms of how often people did it (much less) and what they did it about (practical concerns).

    The development of monological deliberation is an iterative process. As progressively more deliberation takes place in a silent and internal way, greater difficulty is faced in the practice of dialogical deliberation. It takes a very real act of translation to articulate inner speech to external others. Our inner speech is more contracted, we use language idiosyncratically, it has non-linguistic components (images, feelings)  and draws on tacit understandings which may not be shared. Furthermore, this increases with practice. So the more we practice monological deliberation, the more difficulty we experience in extending our deliberations to include external others. It renders the interface between external and internal speech at least potentially conversationally problematic in all situations.

    Once a certain qualitative threshold of monological deliberation has been reached (the individual has begun making rudimentary life choices in a way which is conversationally insulated from the standards of  her ‘similars and familiars’) then all situations possibly require an act of translation between the internal and the external: conveying decisions made using internal standards to external others who might not share those standards. This changes the experiential texture of social life  and gives the individual’s interiority a feeling of irreducibility which would otherwise be lacking. The interface between the internal and the external comes to the fore and neither is experienced as even potentially dispensable. Once autonomous reflexivity ‘takes hold’ in the internal life of an individual, it largely becomes self-sustaining and permits of no return. The individual might lack the social, culture or personal resources to practice autonomous reflexivity effectively (i.e. their practice is impeded) but this doesn’t entail a return to their pre-autonomous mode. Indeed the stress and uncertainty seems likely only to amplify their internal deliberations both quantitatively and qualitatively. Solitude changes everything.

  • Mark 1:07 pm on December 13, 2010 Permalink
    Tags: common goods, , moral imagination, student fees, student protest,   

    Student Fees, Common Goods and Moral Imagination 

    “Why should those who are less well off subsidize the education of people who’ll earn a lot more money as a result of getting a degree?”

    An interesting parallel to the issue raised by this question can be found in the relationship of smokers to the NHS. Why should non-smokers help ‘subsidize’ the additional health costs of those who are knowingly damaging that health and increasing thus increasing their burden on the tax payer? In this question a process is identified (treatment of smokers through a public health service) with differential substantive outcomes for two discrete groups: smokers and non-smokers. The relationship is seen to be unfair because the former group unambiguously benefits from the process (as a result of actions which are unnecessary and avoidable) while the latter group unambiguously loses (as they contribute equally to a common good while others draw on that good much more than they do). Everyone contributes but one group takes more than their fair share.

    Obviously there’s limits to the parallel but I think it’s interesting because it highlights the force which the idea of more than their fare share possesses, as well the rhetorical consequences which can flow from personal identification. The two subject positions loaded into the question (smokers and non-smokers) create a tempting avenue for cashing out the moral issue in personalised terms e.g. “why should I, as a non-smoker, fund the health care of you, as a smoker, when we both make a contribution through taxation on the same basis yet you’re likely to take so much more from it than I will?” I think this identification can just as easily be tacit or explicit. It also often won’t find expression in political debate because not everyone always expresses their personal commitments when arguing with others. Nor do I think that all – or even a majority – necessarily engage in this sort of personal identification with regards to the smoking/NHS debate. All I want to claim is that for all moral debates about social issues: some people do, some of the time and that this is not some psychological fact extrinsic to the ensuing debate but rather partly constitutive of its form.

    The  degree to which certain social issues permit of personal identification should be key to understanding what’s going on with debates surrounding them them. It’s through such identification (as individual subjects ‘step into’ and perform moral membership of a group) that the passions are mobilized and abstract debates become social conflicts. In making this claim I’m drawing on Alisdair Macintyre’s understanding of moral particularly: its our concrete relations and involvements which give meaning and force to our abstract deliberations. Basically the question I’m trying to ask is: how does the discursive construction of a political issue impact upon the way in which particular individuals morally reason about it? One huge way is through the possibilities for personal identification it offers. These in turn shape the way the individuals sees the debate as a moral issue e.g. if they actively identify with the non-smokers then the issue becomes one of ‘fairness’ between two groups. As such it’s also important to understanding how the debate plays itself out intra-personally and interpersonally (with the latter going hand-in-hand with change or stasis in its discursive construction).

    The number of times I’ve read some form of the opening question on my morbidly fascinated trawls through comment forums leads me to think that the student fees debate permits of strong personal identifications which are shaping the way the issue plays itself out. Namely that some people can’t get over the sense that students are taking more than their fair share of finite public resources at a time of crisis, benefitting from doing so and then asking that others who won’t benefit continue to pay for those who do. Also moral evaluations of protests flow from this position simply because it’ll be a primary interpretive standpoint for those who see the issue in this way.

    Although recognizing that this is easier said than done I think it’s really important to move the debate beyond student-fees (not least of all because it’s only one aspects of the government’s HE agenda). This creates an obvious opening for people to personally identify against students, as the individualized financial issue of fees also leads people to see the general debate in individualized and financial terms relating to post-graduation salary gains as well as costs from fees. Perhaps if the issue was presented as ‘access to higher education’  and its generalised social benefits, it creates an opening for people to identify in their capacity as parents (and citizens!). We need to be making a non-instrumental case for the public university, the social benefits of which aren’t reducible to individual profit & loss, as well as how such a public system can act as a driver of social mobility. In doing so it might be possible to create opportunities for identification in the debate which relate to ‘everyone’ and so avoid it being reduced to the comparison of sectional interests.

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