Is liberalism the new rule of law?

In 2015 Kim Davis’ expedient rise to fame made her the new face of Conservative Christian values. The Kentucky County Clerk captured the public’s attention after refusing to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple on the grounds that it violated her religious beliefs, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling to legalize gay marriage. Davis argued that she “didn’t have to think about [refusing licenses]” because regardless of how the laws change, her beliefs never would.

Davis argues her detainment was a direct result of her controversial belief that marriage should be exclusively between a man and a woman. The opposition contends that Davis was detained because she refused to comply with federal law – legalizing gay marriage in all 50 states. Davis’ and her supporters’ main argumentative points continued to circle back to the idea that conservative views were under attack and the government was forcing them to conform to a liberal agenda. While the government is not forcing anyone to conform to a liberal agenda, there is validity to their concern that conservatism is in a vulnerable state. 

Naturally, this debate broadened to considerations of personal freedoms. Conservative Christians who believe, as a result of their religious affiliation, that marriage should be exclusively between a man and a woman argue their freedoms of speech and religion are threatened or infringed upon by the legalization of gay marriage. Conversely, members of the LGBTQ+ community argue that denying them a legal marriage for any reason, religious or otherwise, establishes that they are inherently less and don’t deserve the same rights – a clear suppression of freedoms.

The true underlying argument, made by Davis and those who support her, is that the government should not be able to pass a law that requires them to suppress or abandon their religious beliefs.

The counter-argument is that democratic governments, having to serve the best interest of the majority of the population, tend to make decisions based on a loose interpretation of utilitarianism – argues that the “right” action is the one that brings about the most happiness in the most people. Though it is thought to be an impossible feat, democratic governments (generally) try to keep the wellbeing and interests of the majority of their citizens at the forefront of their decision-making.

When the understanding of ‘freedom’ is looked at from a personal perspective it becomes subjective nature – making it more difficult for governments to protect it.

Foucault, freedom, and the struggle to understand politics

Freedom has two major definitions: 1) the absence of restrictions and 2) the power to do something. Foucault’s ‘soul’ forces us to abide by only one definition.

In ‘Discipline and Punish,’ the definition of ‘soul’ – “born of methods of punishment, supervision, and constraint” – differs from those offered by Christian theologians – that the soul is born of sin.

Foucault argues that the soul wields a certain power and influences knowledge, Essentially, he describes the soul as the non-physical space in which knowledge and power engage in an internal conflict. From this soul comes a person’s “psyche, subjectivity, personality, and consciousness.” Without this soul, neither scientific innovation, humanism, nor morality would exist.

Another fascinating assertion in Foucault’s explanation of the soul is how he incorporates political anatomy – his idea that humans are controlled by external objects and forces.

“The soul is the effect and instrument of a political anatomy; the soul is the prison of the body.”

The definitions of soul and political anatomy render the notion of liberating a personal, internalized power mute since the definitions make it clear that individuals have no control over the inherent power they possess.

These definitions also indirectly suggest that representative democracies as we understand them are not possible – by the people, for the people. Foucault claims that the soul provides individuals with the ability to employ intellect, reason, and creativity, meaning it is the soul – something external from the individual – that is creating laws and practicing governance.

However, Foucault doesn’t address whether concepts like political or regime legitimacy – political power concepts that are considered to be significant indicators of administration or regime success – are possible under his definition. This question also incorporates a debate among political scholars as to whether governments should be understood on an individual or systemic level. This definition of soul would make both of those considerations irrelevant since people and political structures are made up of individuals existing under the assumption that individual decisions carry weight.

For politics to work, both individual and systemic powers have to exist. Given this, is hard to apply Foucault’s and still provide substantive reasons for the actions of governments.


Are politicians and political pundits enlightened?

Emanuel Kant in “What is Enlightenment?” gives his explanation of what Enlightenment is and who embodies it.
Kant defines Enlightenment as “a person’s emergence from their ‘self-incurred’ minority.” Essentially this means that you can only be enlightened if you have shed your natural tendency to allow others to direct and dictate your understanding – not because you don’t know how to understand something, but because you aren’t courageous enough to break away and think for yourself(18-19).
Kant also suggests that some people are more inclined to an enlightened life than others, and those who are enlightened often assume the duty of imposing their schools of thought on to the “unthinking masses (20).”

This made me think about the way we view people in politics today. It is such a common problem that we face now of people listening to everything a political pundit says on TV and treating it as fact. The comment about the unthinking masses is what drew me to this comparison. It is certainly much easier to only listen to commentators you agree with and believe everything they tell you, but the problem with the “unthinking masses” is they are allowing themselves to be taken advantage of.
I disagree with Kant in that I believe that people chose to be enlightened and that it is not a predetermined trait. There must be a choice, because people decide everyday to educate themselves on topics they don’t know much about. Contrary to Kant’s assertion, there is nothing that naturally makes a person more or less equipped to determine how the masses should think or behave. I believe that some people are born naturally better at being leaders, but that in no way entitles them to tell others how to think nor does it mean that people who weren’t natural-born leaders can’t become great leaders.

There isn’t a single person on the planet who is more equipped to decide what you think then you – not a politician, political pundit, leader of an organization, friend, or family member, only you.

Depicting the relationship between sexuality and power

In the History of Sexuality, Foucault lays out what he considers the “principal features” of the relationship between sexuality and power. The first principal, and the principle I’m going to focus on is called the negative relation. The negative relation suggests that there is no connection between power and sex that isn’t negative. Foucault gives rejection, refusal, and masking as examples of this (83).

A demonstration of this idea can be found in Katy Perry’s Part of Me music video. In the video, Katy is seen breaking up with her boyfriend because she thinks that he’s been cheating on her. She proceeds to cut her hair short in a gas station bathroom, then signs up for the Marine Corps. The rest of the video just shows her going through the various stages of Marine Corps training alongside some obvious ad placements.
Foucault’s ideas about power and sexuality came up in the video, first in the scene where Katy cut her hair. Long hair is a symbol of femininity and cutting it to a traditionally male style and length is meant to be symbolic of her shedding that part of her. In that scene, she also wraps her chest to make it look flat. This too symbolizes the shedding of a sexualized element of femininity. We find Foucault’s ideas again when Katy has flashbacks to being at a fair with her boyfriend while doing target practice during boot camp. In the flashback, Katy and her boyfriend were playing a game where you have to shoot a water gun at a target. Her boyfriend is shown as the more dominant of the two even though Katy is winning the game. While shooting an assault rifle at boot camp Katy is thinking about that moment as a way to show a contrast between who she was and who she’s becoming. She is ridding herself of a past image as dainty and submissive – again traits that have historically been assigned to females – by asserting physical power and dominant behavior. Lastly, there is a scene at the end where Katy is putting on war paint as opposed to putting on makeup.
Katy’s understanding of power drove all of her decisions, both in her unhappy relationship and in the Marines. She was on a mission to claim power for herself, more specifically to claim power over herself.

This video was clearly meant to be empowering for women, but the way sexuality and femininity are depicted in the video contradicts that goal. Connecting power and powerful behavior to masculine traits is on the same level as depicting women in a hypersexualized way in a video. Both paint women and the decisions they make into a corner and makes the assumption that assuming masculine traits is the only way to be powerful.

Social censorship and repression

The introduction of Michel Foucault’s book The History of Sexuality suggests there may be a connection between legislative repression of sexual behavior and increased criminal behavior. Foucault, who’s writing in the 1980s, is reflecting on the repression of sexual expression that was normalized before the movement for sexual liberation in the 1960s. He argues that there was a time when people were unapologetically open in their discussions about sex, so open that it was normal for children to be present during these conversations (Foucault, 4). Once social liberty was suppressed, and discussions about sex became taboo, people needed a place to go to full express themselves. This was when brothels and prostitution became cultural staples. Foucault says this is because repressing sex is like repressing a language (6). When a person is told that the way they express themselves is against the law, it’s not surprising that those people will seek illegal avenues for expression.

It is easy to see how this argument could be applied to current discussion on censorship and social issues. In depth surveillance of personal information and legislation restricting people of certain sexual orientations are two contemporary issues that come to mind. The difference here is that most people marginalized in these cases aren’t seeking illegal avenues comparable to the use of brothels or participation in prostitution. However, people are still going to live their lives and express themselves the way they wish regardless of the illegality of their actions.

Foucault brings up the issue that, in both the 16th century and the present, the practices of repression are so ingrained into our society that they become hard to undo. This is the issue we face now. Old arguments that weren’t justified to begin with have been repeated for so many years that they start to make sense (or at least cause doubt) for a demographic that didn’t previously agree. Hope is not lost, however, because just as some people reverted to old, misguided ways of thinking, others have broadened their world view and accepted new ways of thinking – something I’m not sure Foucault truly believed would be a reality.

An impossible exercise may help us understand polarized political views

Rawls’ concept of the Original Position requires that individuals, in order to get a full and well-rounded understanding of a political or philosophical issue, shed all of their biases and predispositions.

The reality, however, is that it is impossible for a person to completely shed their biases – especially according to Rawls’ specifications. He states that a person would need to forget their race, religion, gender, socioeconomic status, political affiliation, educational experiences, etc. in order to have true perspective. It does pose an interesting challenge for all democratic citizens, but especially for those interested in being politically active and engaged.

Personalization has become an integral part of the American digital experience. Social media sites suggest people, companies, and other accounts for you to follow based on the content of your own posts and the content of the accounts you chose to follow on your own. Additionally, social media sites, along with search engines, monitor and store information detailing what you search, what kinds of websites you visit, and what topics you search most often to allow them to plaster ads on your social media or down the side of your search engine site for products/services they have determined you are more likely (statistically) to interact with.

We are also currently battling the progressing normalization of “personalized facts.” With the introduction of social media, the integration of social media into the news business, and the increasing number of political commentary shows marketed for/to a biased audience people are able to hyper-personalize their news intake to only include content that supports their established bias. For example, watch as Bill Maher – a TV personality known for his liberal-leaning political comedy – talks about the dangers of personalized media content.  

Rawls’ solution – adopting a completely unbiased lens through which social and political issues can be examined – alludes to a potentially new and beneficial way of examining taboo topics. Simply creating a political culture in which making an effort to understand a point of view contradictory to your own is both expected and practiced could change the way a lot of issues – and by extension, people – are understood. The starting point towards an eventual implementation of this cultural adaptation is beginning to talk to people who exist outside your own worldview.